This week began with several big-name polls showcasing dire news for Democratic incumbents. But the results weren’t all that surprising to those who have been following the much-discussed surveys of Scott Rasmussen. By 10:00 a.m. most mornings, the fantastically prolific firm has already brought news that will probably ruin some candidate’s day. Rasmussen took a few moments to talk with National Review Online about polling in the current environment.
JIM GERAGHTY: For much of this cycle, your polls have seen things a little bit better for Republicans than those of a lot of other pollsters. This seems to stem in part from your polling likely voters; many other pollsters survey registered voters and some, simply adults. Do you feel vindicated by the fact that seemingly every pollster has now come out with ever-worsening doomsday scenarios for Democrats?
SCOTT RASMUSSEN: I reject the notion that we have seen things more favorably for Republicans. It’s just that if you were to take a poll of registered voters and compare it to a poll of likely voters, the raw numbers of the registered-voter poll would look better for Democrats. Now that they’re all switching to a likely-voter model, sure, they’re going to end up pretty much in the same place. A great example of that was this morning’s Washington Post poll. I think it showed Republicans plus two on the generic ballot among adults, but plus 13 among likely voters. And that’s the kind of gap we have been seeing all through the year.
GERAGHTY: Are pollsters wasting people’s time when they give the registered-voter numbers and let people think they’re getting a good sense of how the electorate’s going to look on Election Day?
RASMUSSEN: There are valid reasons to poll different samples. I think what needs to be clear is just what it is you’re doing. We poll all adults for our consumer- and investor-finances polls, because whether you’re a voter or not, you have an impact on economic trends. There are people who would argue that you can’t do a likely-voter poll until after Labor Day, because you don’t really know what the turnout is going to be, so a registered-voter model is preferred in their mind. That’s not a bad argument, except that it implies too much precision. We didn’t know earlier in the year precisely what turnout would be; we still don’t know precisely what turnout will be. We knew that a likely-voter model would be more favorable to Republicans than a registered-voter model — partly because it’s a midterm. I would think that anybody covering those races would acknowledge that as part of the coverage of a poll.
GERAGHTY: In the coverage of these numbers, certainly in the cases of the two big polls out this morning [ABC News/Washington Post and NBC/Wall Street Journal], there seems to be a tone of shock. Is the sense of shock so intense because some people spent much of the year looking at polls of registered voters and getting an erroneous sense of where the electorate is?
RASMUSSEN: I think there’s been shock because people can never really believe that things are going to turn out differently than they have in the past. In 2006, Republicans looking at the polls that were coming out had a hard time believing that they really were going to be in that much trouble. They could look at their team and say, You know, I know that George Allen shouldn’t have said “macaca,” but here’s why he could pull it out. They would have all of these reasons. But at some point, there begins to be a change.
You’ve got to remember, if you go all the way back to the beginning of this year, we had a shock factor in the Massachusetts Senate race. People just couldn’t believe that. In the middle of 2009, Talking Points Memo did a story saying it was inappropriate for us to measure the strongly approve and disapprove numbers of the president rather than just his overall approval. My response was that it measured the intensity, it gave you an indicator of what was going to happen. And it worked out to be that way.
GERAGHTY: When a politician criticizes your polls, and your poll ends up being pretty close to the final result, do you ever feel like calling him up and saying, “Neener-neener-neener”? It seems that no matter how closely you track to the actual election results, every year it’s back to square one, ”Oh, we can’t trust that guy.”
RASMUSSEN: You have to have a thick skin to be in this business. You have to realize it’s nothing personal. In 2006, [then-senator] Conrad Burns [of Montana, a Republican] attacked our credibility because we showed him in trouble in January. He just didn’t believe it. Then, of course, it turned out to be right. We had the same thing happen with [North Carolina Republican senator] Elizabeth Dole in 2008.
It is part of the process, and you have to understand that people don’t care about polls, they care about what we poll about. The politicians are not truly commenting on the credibility of the poll; they’re trying to spin their version of the story any way they can. If attacking the pollster helps them out, well, that’s what they’ll do.
GERAGHTY: Pollsters weight by age, race, and gender, and sometimes by geography. How important is it to weight by party?
RASMUSSEN: There is a legitimate industry discussion on that. We all know that if you can tell what the partisan makeup [of the electorate] is going to be, it is a great indicator of how the results will turn out. What most pollsters struggle with is, what are the appropriate targets? . . . We do a lot more polling than just about anybody else, so we have enough data that we can provide some ongoing estimates of where the party trends are.
Whether or not you weight by party, it is certainly reasonable for an analyst to look at the results and say, “You know, I just don’t believe that there will be more Democrats turning out in 2010 than in 2008, and I ought to look at that when I consider the results.”
GERAGHTY: Have you ever re-polled a race after getting results that didn’t sit well with your gut?
RASMUSSEN: We release the data and then we go poll it again if something is going on. There are two races right now where I am very curious about what our next polls will show, one in West Virginia and one in Alaska. In both cases, I can come up with a logical argument as to why the numbers are the way they are; I can also come up with a logical argument as to why they show the race as closer than it really is. But we want to get the information out there and let other people engage in that discussion, and we’ll poll again and see where it ends up.
GERAGHTY: What result has surprised you the most this cycle?
RASMUSSEN: When we did the Scott Brown poll in early January and it showed a nine-point race and a two-point race among the most likely voters, I thought, “Boy, we’re going to be way out there on a limb!” That was not where the expectations were, so that was a shock in the early part of the cycle.
Another race that surprised me — right from the start — was Russ Feingold’s. He wasn’t in the Harry Reid position, he didn’t have big-name opposition once Tommy Thompson dropped out, and yet here he is in a toss-up race. I had expected that once Thompson dropped out, we wouldn’t be seeing that.
The other race that has been a real shock to me this year is Barbara Boxer’s in California. I’ve said a million times — I know she always polls poorly, but it’s still California — and I was saying early in the year, if we’re still talking about this race in September and October, it means things really are going to be bad for Democrats. Well, here we are, and she’s still tied.
GERAGHTY: Can Republicans blow it in the last two months?
RASMUSSEN: It depends on how you define “blow it.” Is it possible that they will blow it to such extent that this ends up being just a “normal” midterm, with the Democrats losing 15 to 20 seats? No, I don’t think that’s possible. I don’t think that they’re going to have only minimal gains in the Senate. But how close they get to gaining control of the Senate and whether or not they gain control of the House, that’s still up in the air. But that ultimately has less to do with Republicans than with Democrats, because this election is all about the party in power.
This election is a referendum on the Democrats — it’s not a referendum on incumbents as much as on the Democratic party. We put out a poll last week that I think captures some of the basic mood. Most Americans believe, as they have for decades, that cutting government spending and cutting taxes is good for the economy. That’s just sort of a bedrock belief of the American people. At the same time, they believe that the Democrats in Congress want to increase spending and increase taxes. That creates a tough road when you’re the party in power, when you’ve got that kind of perception out there.
GERAGHTY: In 2006, voters seemed to tune out GOP incumbents’ criticism of their Democratic challengers. In a year when one party has clear momentum, like this year, do voters disregard criticism of the party they’re not angry at? In other words, does the tie go to the challenger in a race like Sharron Angle vs. Harry Reid?
RASMUSSEN: The things that scare people about Sharron Angle aren’t at any risk of becoming law right now, but the things Harry Reid is boasting about — passing the health-care law, for example — are very real. So yes, the tie goes to the challenger at this point in time.
That Nevada race is the mud-wresting match of this year. Both candidates are growing so unpopular that if voters go into the booth thinking about Harry Reid, then Sharron Angle will win. If voters go into the booth thinking about Sharron Angle, then Harry Reid will win.
GERAGHTY: Rasmussen doesn’t poll primaries or non-statewide House races very often. Is there a reason for that?
RASMUSSEN: The reason we don’t do most House races is simply that we’ve committed to polling every Senate and governor’s race in this cycle, and that’s where our focus has been. We’ve been pretty consistent over the years. We may have done a couple of House races in 2004, I can’t remember, but I don’t think we did anything in the 2006 or 2008 cycles, other than the statewide races. But remember, we are a media polling organization, not a political organization.
There are two different audiences that read our material. One audience is political junkies — an audience we share with you — and they have one view on things. The other is local and state media coverage. You know, we actually get more people introduced to Rasmussen Reports through our state polls than through any of our national data. A state poll about a general election gets a tremendous amount of interest generated. It also lets us poll on other issues: If we’re polling statewide on a general-election race, we can ask what people think of health care, the economy, or whatever else the issue of the day is, and it gives reporters in that state lots of things to write about.
GERAGHTY: Is it easier to get a clear reading on the percentages of a close, hard-fought race than on a blowout?
RASMUSSEN: One of the reasons that the margins are different in lopsided races is that they’re not polled as frequently. It’s also harder to determine turnout, because you have to allow for people who end up saying, “Our guy’s going to win by 50 points, so why bother showing up?” You tend to do a lot of polling in tighter races. You want to make sure you get the partisan mix right. So, generally, the more competitive races are easier to call, or easier to get results closer to the final levels of support.
Still, it looks a whole lot different if you’re projecting a candidate to win by two points and he loses by a point, than if you have an 18-point race in your poll and it turns out to be a 27-point race.
GERAGHTY: What do you see happening between now and November? Volatility? Swings? “October surprises” that could change all this?
RASMUSSEN: When you talk about an “October surprise,” it would have to be something on a really significant scale. I can’t imagine what it would be. We know from lots of polling that when the American people get bad news about the economy, their confidence drops right away. If they get good news, it takes five or six months of good economic news to make up for that one bit of bad economic news. What that tells me is that if there is a really bad unemployment report at the end of September, that could be really bad for the Democrats. If there’s a moderately good report, it probably won’t change things all that much.
The question is going to be how individual campaigns play in the larger environment, which is friendly to Republicans. The environment is going to continue to change, become a bit more or less friendly than it is today, but still stay generally friendly to Republicans. Democratic candidates are going to try to find ways to localize those races and get away from that trend, and how successful they are at doing that will determine the final numbers.
GERAGHTY: Any under-the-radar race you’re keeping your eye on? Any upset special?
RASMUSSEN: The race that I would potentially put in that category right now is the West Virginia Senate race. We have one poll out showing it a very competitive race. It’s clear that President Obama is not a welcome figure in West Virginia politics. But [Democratic nominee] Joe Manchin is so popular as governor that it was thought to be a safe seat. So that’s a potential upset special.
The one thing that’s being underreported in this election cycle is not a race but something about the economy. It goes like this: People today are less pessimistic about the economy in general, far less pessimistic than they were a year ago. However, they have not seen any improvement in their own personal finances. People are feeling worse about their personal finances than they felt a year ago and worse than they felt two years ago, and they continue to believe that their own finances are getting worse. Only half of homeowners believe their home is worth more than the mortgage. We can talk all we want about grand issues and economic indicators, but when people aren’t feeling good about their own personal finances, it creates a sour mood for all politicians.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.