The Big Loser: Media Polling
posted at 8:28 am on December 9, 2010 by Mitch Berg
The Twin Cities’ conservative blogging community, going back to its earliest days in the early 2000s, has had a common rallying point; the amazing inaccuracy of the Twin Cities’ media’s pre-election opinion polls.
The University of Minnesota’s “Hubert H. Humphrey Institute” – a left-leaning think tank – has been running election polling for the past six years or so.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune has been in the polling business rather longer – 66 years.
And in many ways, the polls are very different, But they seem to the casual observer to have one thing in common; in the run-up to major elections, especially close-fought ones (as most of them are in Minnesota these days), they both seem to favor Democratic (in Minnesota, they’re called “DFL”) candidates by an occasionally absurd margin.
The perception among many conservative bloggers – including Scott Johnson at Power Line, who’s been writing about the Minnesota Poll for the better part of a decade – is that something is fishy.
At long last, I decided to dig through the numbers and see what we could conclude.
It was an interesting exercise.
A Little Background
The Star Tribune started running public opinion polling of the Minnesota electorate in 1944. It’s polled Minnesotans over a variety of topics, but the marquee subjects are always the big three elections – State Governor, US Senate and Presidential elections.
Now, if you’ve lived in Minnesota in the past fifty years or so (I go back half of that time – I moved here in ’85), it’s hard to believe that Minnesota used to be a largely Republican state. Of course, the Republicans we had up until very recently were the type that make the likes of Lori Sturdevant grunt with approval – “progressive” Republicans like Elmer Anderson and Wheelock Whitney and the like.
I bring this up to note that while the various parties have changed – Republicans used to be “progressive”, Democrats used to be “America First” – that Minnesota party politics for the past 66 years have been a little more evenly-matched than current political consciousness – shaped as its been by Humphrey and Mondale and “Minnesota Miracle” and Wellstone and Carlson – might make you believe.
Now, if you look at the Minnesota Poll’s statistics for the past 66 years – going back to the 1944 elections, for Governor, Senator and President – the Minnesota Poll is actually fairly even. In that time, Republicans have gotten an average of 46.85 percent of the vote for all those offices, to 49.37% for DFLers. During that time, the Minnesota Poll’s “election eve” predictions have averaged 44.1% for Republicans, and 46.77% for Democrats. That means that over history, the big final Minnesota Poll has shown Republicans doing 2.75 points worse than they turned out, with DFLers coming in 2.59 points worse than they finally turned out. The results have tended to be, over the course of 66 years, infinitesimally more accurate – .16% – for Democrats. It’s insignificant, truly.
Indeed, when you go through the numbers from the forties and the fifties, you can see some blogger back in 1958 decrying two things – the lack of an internet to blog on, and a serious pro-Republican bias in the Minnesota poll; in polls run before 1960, the Minnesota poll predicted Republicans would get 51.58, while GOP candidates for the big three offices actually got 50.32% of the vote – the poll overestimated Republicans by an average of 1.26%. The DFL got an average of 49.73% of the vote during those years, while the Minnesota Poll had them at an average of 43.51% – which is 6.22% lower than they actually turned out doing (although this number gets inflated by a truly horrible performance in the 1948 Gubernatorial election, where the MNPoll had John Halstead at 25% in their pre-election poll; he ended up losing, but with 45%. That had to be frustrating). In all, before 1960, the Strib “Minnesota Poll”‘s pre-election poll overestimated the GOP’s performance compared to the DFL’s in 76% of elections; the poll’s overestimates favored the GOP by an average of almost 7.5%.
By the mid-sixties, of course, Minnesota politics changed drastically; by the middle of the decade, the golden age of “progressive” politics and the DFL, led by the likes of Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter Mondale for the DFL, and Elmer Anderson for the GOP, left Minnesota a very different state. During those years – from about 1966, after Barry Goldwater re-introduced a partisan divide to national politics for the first time, really, since the war – the DFL won the average vote 50.97 to 46.61. The Minnesota Poll predicted DFL victories, on average, of 49.62 to 42.79; they underreported the final support for Republicans by an average of 3.83%, and DFLers by 1.35%, an average skew of almost 2.5% in favor of the DFL.
But if you look at the actual elections covered in those years – from 1966 to 1990, the “Golden Age of the DFL” – of the 21 contests for President, Governor and Senator, the Minnesota Poll showed the Democrat doing better than they turned out doing by a greater margin than the Republican in 13 of the elections, and inflating the GOP candidates results in eight. The 1980 Presidential election skewed things a bit – the MNPoll underestimated Jimmy Carter’s performance by 12.5% (Carter got 46.5%, while the MNPoll predicted 34%; it also overestimated Reagan’s performance by a little over a point, leading to one of the biggest pro-Republican skews in the recent history of the Minnesota Poll).
Overall, for the entire history of the Minnesota Poll from 1944 to 1986, the Minnesota Poll showed the public voting, on election eve, for the DFL by a 48.25% to 46.34% average margin; the actual elections favored the DFL to 51.10 47.81; the poll underpolled Republicans by a 1.47% average, and Democrats by an average of 2.85%. Of the 41 total contests in that time, the DFL was overestimated by a greater margin than the GOP in 44% of the polls – again, not a really significant number.
In other words, the poll’s statistical vicissitudes were fairly balanced through its first 42 years.
But in 1987, the Strib hired Rob Daves to run the Minnesota Poll.
And things would change.
Rob Daves took over the Minnesota Poll in 1987.
I have never met Rob Daves. Either, to the best of my knowledge, has anyone else. I don’t know that his alt-media bete noir, Scott Johnson, has even met him, despite not a few requests for interviews.
I have no idea what Rob Daves thinks, believes, wants, says or does. I know nothing about his personal life, and I really don’t want or need to. For all I know, he’s a perfectly wonderful human being.
But for a 20 year period under his direction, the Minnesota Poll turned into an epic joke. How epic?
The numbers don’t lie.
During the Rob Daves years, party politics in Minnesota skittered all over the map. The governors office started DFL, changed hands, and with Dayton’s recount victory has changed back (by a half-point margin). The Reagan/Bush 41 era seesawed to Clinton, then Dubya, and now Obama; both Senate seats started Republican; both switched to the DFL, eventually.
There has, in short, been a lot of variety, at least in terms of the Party ID winning the various elections.
But the Minnesota Poll has been oddly homogenous.
Throughout the Rob Daves era, the Democratic or DFL candidate in Presidential, Gubernatorial and Senate races has gotten an average of 45.68% of the vote, to 45.21% for the GOP. That’s very, very close.
Some of the races have been blowouts – Amy Klobuchar’s 20 point drubbing of Mark Kennedy, Arne Carlson’s 30 point hammering of John Marty – and some, like our 2008 Senate and 2010 Governor races, have been (or still are) painfully close.
But you’d never know it from the Minnesota poll. The average vote totals – between the blowouts and upsets and squeakers – during Daves’ 1987-2007 tenure favored the DFL, barely, by 45.98 to 45.34%. But the Minnesota Polls released just before all those elections showed the population favoring the DFL by 43.33 to 39.89%.
And of 18 total contests, the polling inaccuracies skewed in the direction of the DFL in 15. The average skew toward the DFL came to almost three percentage points.
When you break things out, the differences get wider; in the five Presidential elections, the Minnesota Poll discerned a 49.67 to 36% DFL lead; the actual results were 50.13 to 41.64%. The Minnesota Poll underrepresented the GOP by an average of 5.64% in Presidential elections during the Daves years. The Strib Poll showed every single GOP candidate coming up short of his actual election performance: George HW Bush polled 3.80% light; Dole, 7.00%; Dubya, 8.50 and 6.61; McCain also polled seven points under his real performance. The Democrats, on the other hand, seemed to be polled fairly accurately; the average error poll and election for Democratic presidential candidates was less than half a point.
The Senate races are a little closer – the Republicans underperform the election results 4.29% to 3.14%, a difference of 1.15% under their election results, which isn’t very significant – if you just look at raw numbers. Well come back to that.
In the Gubernatorial races during the Daves years, though, the polling results were pretty lockstep. In gubernatorial races since 1987, the GOP has outpolled the DFL by an average of 46.77 to 38.91% – including one huge blowout (1994) and several squeakers. But the Minnesota Poll has shown Minnesotans’ preferences at 40.17 to 36.67 in favor of the GOP. Republicans’ performance was underpolled by 6.6% in the Minnesota poll – that of the DFL by only 2.24%. The Minnesota poll showed Minnesotans underselecting Republicans by almost triple the margin of the actual elections.
A classic – and large – example was the 2002 Governor race. The election-eve Minnesota Poll showed Pawlenty tipping Moe by 35-32. The real margin was 44-36. While the poll oversampled Independence Party candidate Tim Penny by a fairly impressive margin, the fact is that while the final MN Poll undershot Moe’s support by 4%, it underrepresented Pawlenty’s by nine solid points.
All in all, of the 20 Presidential, Senate and Gubernatorial races during the Daves era, 16 of them showed the Minnesota Poll underpolling the GOP by a greater degree than the DFL.
And that’s just counting all the races.
Daves was let go at the Strib in 2007. The Minnesota Poll was taken over by “Princeton Research Study Group”, which also does polling for Newsweek (whose polling is generally considered atrocious).
The 2008 races were very different, of course; the Senate race was a virtual tie, while Obama beat McCain handily.
But the day before the election, the Minnesota poll said McCain was polling just 37%; he ended up with 44%. It overestimated Obama’s support by under a point, calling him at 55% when he got 54.2%. The Minnesota Poll sandbagged Mac by seven points.
And Franken v. Coleman? The day before the election, the poll showed Coleman almost four points below his actual performance (38% versus 41.98) ; it nailed Franken almost dead-on (42% i the poll, 41.99% by the time the recount was over).
PRSA showed both GOP candidates performing drastically off their real pace on election eve.
And a week before the gubernatorial election, the Minnesota Poll showed Emmer at 34%; he got 43.21%. Nine points better than the Minnesota poll indicated.
The upshot? Of the 20 total election contests in the Rob Daves and PRSA eras, the Minnesota Poll has underpolled GOP support in 17 – 85% – of those races.
And PRSA polling has, on average, underpolled the GOP by 6.12% in those three elections. In other words, PRSA’s errors have favored the DFL to the tune of six points – which is more than the three-plus points of the Rob Daves era.
One might think that random statistics would scatter on both sides of the middle more or less equally. And in the first 42 years of the Minnesota poll, in aggregate, they did, as we showed above.
But during the Daves years, and continuing with PRSA, the errors developed a consistency – shorting Republicans – and grew in magnitude.
Of course, those averages hide some big swings; some races in those averages were real blowouts.
It’s been my theory that the Minnesota Poll’s “peculiarities” are most pronounced during close elections.
We’ll come back to that.
The Humphrey Institute Poll
The Hubert H. Humphrey Institute is a combination public-policy study program and think tank at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Named for the patriarch of the Democratic Farmer-Labor party – a forties-era amalgamation of traditional Democrats and neo-wobbly Farmer-Labor Union members whose Stalinist elements Humphrey famously purged in the mid-forties – the institution serves as a clearinghouse of soft-left chanting points and a retirement program for mostly left-of-center politicians and heelers.
The Institute has been doing general public opinion polling for years; in 2004, in conjunction with Minnesota Public Radio, they dove into the horserace game.
Let’s just sum up their performance in each of the five Presidential, Gubernatorial and Senate races they’ve polled in that time:
2004 Presidential Race
- HHH Poll: Kerry 43, Bush 37
- Actual Election Results: Kerry 51, Bush 47
- Bush underrepresented by 10.61, Kerry by 8.09.
2006 Gubernatorial Race]
- HHH Poll: Hatch 45, Pawlenty 40
- Actual Election Results: Pawlenty 46.45.
- Pawlenty underrepresented by six, Hatch polled accurately.
2006 Senate Race
- HHH Poll: Klobuchar 54, Kennedy 34
- Actual Election Results: Klobuchar 58.06, Kennedy 37.94
- Kennedy underpolled by 3.94, Klobuchar by 4.06 – but it was a blowout. We’ll come back to this.
2008 Presidential Election
- HHH Poll: Obama 56, Mccain 37
- Actual Election Results: Obama 54.2, McCain 44.
- Obama overrepresented almost two points; McCain, almost seven points under. A ten point race was portrayed as a 20 point landslide.
2008 US Senate Race
- HHH Poll: Franken 41, Coleman 37
- Actual Election Results: Franken by 41.99 to 41.98.
- Franken underrepresented by less than a point; Coleman, by almost five. A tie race was portayed as a convincing five points beat-down.
2010 Governor Race
- HHH Poll: Dayton 41, Emmer 29.
- Actual Election: Dayton 43.63, Emmer 43.21, recount in progress.
- A tie race was depicted as a 12 point blowout.
A polling guru will say that these gross inaccuracies are a function of the Humphrey’s likely voter model – which for whatever reason assumed in each case that Democrats were much more likely to vote than Republicans, and likely to make up a greater portion of the electorate.
And yet the Humphrey Institute’s heuristics – the procedural, institutional and methodological rules by which institutions develop intelligence about things like voter behavior – seem to be stuck, for whatever reason, in the eighties. The average HHH poll shows Republican candidates to be polling over five and a half points lower than Democrats in their real-life election performances.
In five of the six races covered above, the errors in measurement underrepresented the GOP. It’s an figure lower than that of the “Minnesota Poll” only because they’ve been in business sixty years fewer than the Strib’s poll.
Why would this be?
We”ll come back to that.
The Close Shaves
It’s almost become a cliche, among conservative observers of Minnesota elections. You’re supporting a Republican. You know the race is close. You can feel the race is close.
And the final Humprhey and Minnesota polls come out, and the DFLer leads by an utterly absurd margin – like this year’s Humphrey Institute Poll, which showed a 12 point race…
…which, two days later, came in a statistical dead heat, with much less than half a point separating the two candidates.
And yet the Minnesota and Humphrey Institute polls have their defenders.
Remember the 2006 Senate race? Mark Kennedy vs. Amy Klobuchar?
The Minnesota poll did pretty well, all in all. The final Minnesota poll showed Mark Kennedy getting 34 points, to Amy Klobuchar’s 55. The race ended up being 58.06 to just shy of 38. The Minnesota poll showed both candidates doing a little worse than they eventually wound up doing – Klobuchar a little worse, in fact.
Defenders of the Minnesota Poll – media people and lefty pundits – chimed in. “See? The Minnesota poll is OK” or at the very least “The Minnesota Poll is an equal-opportunity incompetent”.
But if you’re a cynic – and when it comes to the Minnesota and Humphrey Polls, I most certainly am – the answer there is obvious; if you accept that the polls exist to help one party or another out of close jams (and let’s just say I think there’s a case to be made), then the real question is “how do the polls stack up when it really counts – during the close elections“?
I took a look at the Minnesota poll’s history with close races – Gubernatorial, Presidential and Senate races that ended up less than five points apart – over the past 66 years. Since 1944 in these races – twenty of them – the DFL ended up getting 47.69% to the GOP’s 47.57% in the final elections. The Minnesota Poll has shown the DFL getting 44.3% to 43.28% in the final pre-election poll. Both numbers are very close, of course. The Minnesota Poll has underrepresented Republicans by an average of 4.3 points, the DFL by 3.39. So while the poll underrepresented Republicans in 14 of 20 races, it was by less than a point, on average.
But that’s over 66 years. And if you recall from episode 1 of this series, the Minnesota Poll used to systematically undercount the DFL. But long story short – looking at the poll’s entire history, things are fairly close.
When you look at the Rob Daves era at the Minnesota poll, though, things change.
In close races (<5 point final difference) during the Rob Daves era, the GOP has actually gotten a slightly higher average vote total – 46.77% to 46.48% – in actual elections. But the final Minnesota Poll has shown the DFL outpolling the GOP 43.33% to 40.78%. Republicans come up an average of six points light in the final Minnesota Poll before the election, with DFLer finishing a little over three points short – nearly a 2-1 margin in underrepresentation.
In other words, in close races the Minnesota Poll has shown the GOP doing six points worse than they actually did, compared to three points for the DFL. And the average Minnesota Poll has shown the DFL leading the GOP, when in fact the races have been mixed, with move Republican winners than in the previous 20-odd years of Minnesota history.
If you are an idealist, you could think that it’s just a statistical anomaly. To which the cynic notes that of eight close races, the GOP has been undercounted by less than the DFL exactly once.
The cynic might continue that it’s entirely possible that the Minnesota Poll doesn’t systematically short Republicans in close elections. But given that the poll shorts Republicans in races that end up less than five points apart by an average of considerablymore than five points, the cynic would ask “if the Minnesota Poll were designed to keep Republicans home from the polls out of pure discouragement, how would it be any different than what we have now?”
Well, it could look like the Humphrey Poll.
Because the Humprey Poll is worse. Granted, it’s a smaller sample size – there’ve been four “close” races (2004 Presidential, and the 2006 Governor, 2008 Senate and 2010 Governor races, which were/are very close indeed).
But in those race, the DFL won by an average of 45.43% to 44.7% (most of the gap coming from the four-point 2004 Presidental race; the other three had/have tallies within a point in difference). But the final HHH poll showed the DFL/Democratic candidate winning by an average of seven points – 42.5 to 35.75%. The DFL, is underrepresented in the HHH’s final pre-election poll by just a shade under three points; GOP is underpolls its real-life results by an average of almost nine points.
It’s possible that this is an honest error. It is possible that the Humphrey Institute really, really believes that they have a likely voter model that accurately reflects Minnesota. Perhaps it even does; maybe Minnesota really is a land of people who answer “DFL” on polls but come racing over to the GOP on election day. But again – if the Humphrey Institute intended to help the DFL and keep Republicans home, it’s hard to see what they’d do differently.
Especially given the media’s reaction to these polls.
The Why They War
The Humphrey and Strib polls have been one of the ongoing “go to” subjects on my blog for almost eight years now.
Because while the polls themselves are risible, they have an effect on elections in Minnesota.
Part of it is in terms of people – “undecided”, “independent” voters – going to the polls at all. I’ve related on this blog several stories of people who’ve pondered not going to the polls this past year. Part of it was because of the overwhelming negativity about Tom Emmer portrayed by the media – negativity, partly driven by the “Alliance For A Better Minnesota’s long, Dayton-family-funded, largely dubiously-factual smear campaign, but pushed hard in the media via the “polling” that they, themselves, commissioned.
Larry Jacobs at the Hubert H. Humphrey (HHH) Institute is the most over-quoted person in the Twin Cities media. And during the campaign, Jacobs was seen as relentlessly as always in the Twin Cities media, flogging the Humphrey Institute’s polling first during the primaries (where the HHH’s polls showed Dayton with a crushing lead even though Dayton won the primaries by a margin not a whole lot bigger than the one we currently have in the governor’s race) and, finally, during the run-up to the election when the HHH poll showed Dayton winning with a 12 point blowout.
We’re still working on the recount for the 0.4% race.
Jacobs defended the poll (quoted in LFR):
JACOBS: Well, you know, a poll is nothing more than a snapshot in time. We’ve begun the interviewing nearly 2 weeks before election day. Barack Obama visited and we talked openly about the fact that this would likely change. There are, of course, all kinds of other factors that happened at the end, including the fact the almost 1 out of 5 undecided voters in our poll started to make up their mind.
The other thing to remember is that there were alot of other polls being conducted that showed the race closing at the time, something we were watching at the time, also.
That’s right, Dr. Jacobs. There were a lot of other polls.
And except for the HHH and Minnesota polls, all of them showed a “snapshot in time” that was something close to the reality that eventually emerged on election day.
All of them.
Because opinion polling has an inordinate effect on media coverage and, less directly, the money and effort that people put into campaigns.
As to the media? The New York Times has absorbed Nate Silver’s “Five Thirty Eight” stats-blog for its election polling coverage. And throughout the race, the Times ran with the idea that Dayton was overwhelmingly likely to win.
And that supposition was based entirely on a statistical tabulation of opinion poll results. And the stats were heavily based on the Minnesota and Humphrey polls, especially through the middle of the race, when the tone of the campaign was being set. All together, the crunching of the opinion poll numbers led Silver to claim the stats showed Minnesota would be a convincing 6.6 point victory for Dayton; since political statistics are an essentially weaselly “science”, Silver also ran with an eight point margin of error.
Naturally, the media ran with the 6.6 points; a little less with the margin of error.
“If a shortcoming is identified, we will fix it. If not, we will have third-party verification that our methods are sound.”
Dr. Jacobs: take it from this third party; it’s flawed. Flawed to the point of illegitimacy.
Hopefully the Minnesota voter will get the message, even if the Minnesota media doesn’t.