Sleepers, or Bad Polling?

In our ongoing search to find intriguing campaigns below the political radar, we see two congressional races gaining more credibility. Though specific polling data now shows upset possibilities for a Maine Republican and an Iowa Democrat, just how reliable are the results?


Iraq War veteran Jim Mowrer (D) has captured some previous national attention with his prodigious fundraising in his battle with six-term western Iowa Rep. Steve King (R). Now well on his way to raising $2 million for his challenge campaign against King, a new poll gives Mowrer confirmation that he is positioning himself in upset territory.

DFM Research, a Minneapolis Democratic polling firm, conducted a 4th District survey for the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Union (Sept. 20-23; 450 IA-4 residents) largely for purposes of questioning people about transportation issues, specifically surrounding rail. The congressional and US Senate questions were of secondary importance. Because of that, the data contains some glaring political weaknesses.

The DFM conclusion suggests that Rep. King has only a 46-43 percent advantage over Mowrer. But keep in mind that the sampling universe was not even screened for registered voters, let alone those most likely to cast ballots. Therefore, the data is likely highly skewed and can’t be considered particularly reliable. On the other hand, the poll projects state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) to be leading Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA-1) in the Senate race by 10 points within this district, which is plausible.

There is no doubt that Mowrer is running an effective campaign. Rep. King had to fight hard to win his redrawn CD in the 2012 election cycle, participating in the most expensive campaign (in terms of individual campaign dollars raised) in the entire United States. Rep. King and Christie Vilsack, the wife of former Iowa governor and current US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (D), saw their combined spending exceed $6 million. Against a tougher opponent than Mowrer in a more Democratic year, King prevailed with a sizable 53-45 percent victory. Based upon that performance in what should be a Republican district, Rep. King still must be considered the favorite even if this special interest group poll potentially suggests otherwise.


The second sleeper race comes from western Maine, where a new poll places Republican Bruce Poliquin 10 points ahead of Democratic nominee, and race favorite, Emily Cain. According to the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, Poliquin, the state’s former treasurer, holds a 40-30 percent advantage over state Sen. Cain.

It’s not unfathomable that Poliquin is an upset candidate. Though the 2nd District is reliably Democratic (Obama ’12: 53 percent; Obama ’08: 55 percent; Rep. Mike Michaud (D): win percentages of 56, 53, 67, 70, and 58 percent in his last five elections) Mainers have been known to jump to the Republicans from time to time in each of their two House districts. The 2nd had been represented by Olympia Snowe (R) for eight terms until she was elected to the Senate in 1994. The seat has been in Democratic hands ever since, however.

The UNH Survey Center went into the field on a statewide basis during the Sept. 18-25 period, and segmented 220 respondents from the 2nd District. Based upon that small sample over a long eight-day period, the pollsters arrived at the 10-point Poliquin advantage. The methodology is typical for UNH, whose track record has proven to be one of the most unreliable of those who release data into the national political arena. One reason is their unusually long sampling period, which they believe is a mainstay of their polling.

Discounting this particular poll is not to say that Poliquin isn’t in position to score an upset win. With strong support coming from the National Republican Congressional Committee – the NRCC just launched a new ad program attacking Cain over energy independence – this race is now often mentioned as a potential sleeper campaign.

Poliquin, a businessman and former appointed state treasurer, is in his first congressional campaign after losing contests for both governor (2010) and senator (2012). Cain was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 2004, eventually rising to the minority leader position. She won her state Senate seat in 2012. Like Poliquin, this is her first bid for Congress.

Both the IA-4 and ME-2 races deserve attention between now and Election Day. Every election cycle features upsets and these could be two in 2014. We will have to see more consistent and reliable polling data indicating such to believe that each underdog will out-distance their opponent on Nov. 4, however.

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