Monday, September 29, 2008

Wild Polling in the Wild, Wild West

By Nathan L. Gonzales

We’ve entered the season of dueling polls, and Montana’s gubernatorial race is no exception.

Earlier this week, the Montana Democratic Party released a poll showing Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) with a huge 39-point lead over his challenger, state Sen. Roy Brown (R). The poll, conducted Sept. 16-18 by the Mellman Group, showed the incumbent with a 63-percent-to-24-percent advantage.

The results may be on the upper end of Schweitzer’s advantage, but they certainly weren’t out of the realm of possibility in a race where the governor has consistently enjoyed the political and financial upper hand. A Mason-Dixon survey for Lee Enterprises in May showed Schweitzer with a 25-point advantage.

But the Brown campaign just couldn’t let it rest. A campaign spokesman ridiculed the poll in a Great Falls Tribune story on Wednesday, and released polling numbers to counter the Democratic results, which showed Brown leading Schweitzer by 4 points, 46 percent to 42 percent.

The problem is that those numbers, taken from a Sept. 11-12 Moore Information poll, were not the initial ballot test. That distinction was not made in the Tribune story and the numbers subsequently appeared in Thursday’s Hotline.

“The Montana gubernatorial poll numbers quoted from the Brown Campaign reflect the ‘educated’ ballot numbers after a series of statements about the candidates. The poll numbers quoted do not reflect sentiment before before respondents heard statements,” according to a statement by Moore Information to the Hotline.

“In political surveys, there is often an ‘initial ballot,’ followed by statements about the candidates, followed by an ‘educated’ ballot. The numbers you quoted reflect the ‘educated’ ballot. This is an important distinction when interpreting polling data.” As an informed ballot, the numbers would have never appeared in the Hotline.

The distinction does keep Moore Information’s well-earned credibility intact, since there is no evidence or reason to believe that Brown is winning the race. And Moore Information’s explanation reflects standard polling practices.

According to a Brown campaign aide, the Republican has no intention of releasing the initial ballot numbers, which give the truest picture of the state of the race. So it’s pretty clear that the Democratic numbers are not that far off because if Brown had dramatically different results, he would have released the numbers.

For better or worse, Schweitzer’s mouth tends to make things interesting, but for now, he’s well on his way to a second term.

This story first appeared on on September 26, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.