The Polling Machine

By Jim Ellis

Sept. 17, 2018 — In news that got pushed aside because of all of last week’s primaries, the Siena College Research Institute entered into a polling partnership with the New York Times to survey what the news organization spokespeople indicate will be nearly 100 US House campaigns. The Times’ statement also says more people will be “talked to (in sampling groups) than ever before.”

sienna-college-research-institute-jim-ellis-insightThe other interesting twist is that the results will be published in real time, meaning readers can see the responses as they are being recorded. The full sample is targeted to be in the 500 range per congressional district, a very healthy size. But readers should be cautioned about trying to project a pattern before the individual respondent universe is fully developed.

Siena College has been the featured New York Times pollster for several election cycles, concentrating on New York races. They regularly poll the state to test a governor’s approval rating, and how the electorate rates certain state-related and federal issues, along with conducting candidate ballot tests.

The 538 political analytics organization, which rates national, regional, and local pollsters, among other research, awards Siena an A grade in both the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, saying they have called 82 percent of the races correctly from 66 political surveys (60 in the 2016 election cycle, and six this year).

Siena records an average polling error rate of 4.9 percent, and concentrates on the live phoner method that includes conducting some respondent interviews on cell phones. The 538 organization records a Siena bias factor toward the Democrats of just 0.1 percent, which ties for one of the lowest in the polling universe and behind only Iowa’s Selzer & Company and Fairleigh Dickinson University, which scored a perfect 0.0 percent bias factor rating.

At this early point in the polling experiment, Siena has completed seven congressional polls for the New York Times, largely finding close results. Tight outcomes, however, are to be expected in this series because they are testing what appear to be the most competitive campaigns. The point spread in one of the early polls, however, is surprising.

In Minnesota’s 3rd District, a campaign that was always expected to be hard fought, businessman Dean Phillips (D) holds a 51-42 percent (Sept. 7-9; 500 responses from 21,046 attempted calls) lead over five-term incumbent Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Eden Prairie), a spread well beyond the polling margin of error. Despite President Trump losing this suburban Minneapolis seat by 10 points in 2016, Rep. Paulsen scored a 57-43 percent victory against a veteran state senator who spent over $2 million. But, this race looks, right now, to be the toughest test of his political career.

The other six races are mostly razor thin, and several actually show improvement for the Republican incumbent despite placing them in perilously close election campaigns. They are:

CA-48: (Sept. 4-6; 501 responses from 34,782 attempted calls)
• Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) 45%; Harley Rouda (D) 45%
This result is an improvement for Rep. Rohrabacher who is viewed to be one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents in the nation despite having what should be, and has performed as, a strong Republican district.


IL-6: (Sept. 4-6; 512 responses from 36,355 attempted calls)
• Rep. Peter Roskam (R) 45%; Sean Casten (D) 44%
This result is consistent with other released surveys. The IL-6 race has been forecast as a tight contest for months.


IL-12: (Sept. 4-6; 533 responses from 22,617 attempted calls)
• Rep. Mike Bost (R) 44%; County Attorney Brendan Kelly (D) 43%
Democrats were successful in recruiting their top choice to challenge two-term Rep. Bost, and the polling results suggest that the move is paying political dividends.


KY-6: (Sept. 6-8; 506 responses from 29,946 attempted calls)
• Rep. Andy Barr (R) 47%; Amy McGrath (D) 46%
After McGrath, a retired combat veteran, scored a major upset in the Democratic primary, she mounted strong momentum against Rep. Barr. For awhile, she held double-digit leads. The race has now normalized just as we begin prime time campaign season.


MN-8: (Sept. 6-9; 504 responses from 18,675 attempted calls)
• Former State Rep. Joe Radinovich (D) 44%; Commissioner Pete Stauber (R) 43%
This seat is commonly viewed as the Republicans’ best opportunity to convert a Democratic seat. Therefore, the tight polling result here is not particularly surprising even though Minnesota’s Iron Range is historically a Democratic stronghold.


WV-3: (Sept. 8-10; 499 responses from 25,496 attempted calls)
• State Del. Carol Miller (R) 48%; State Sen. Richard Ojeda (D) 40%
For years a Democratic coal country stronghold, this seat flipped in 2014 and now Republicans tend to dominate. Sen. Ojeda is a solid candidate; hence, the point spread’s relative closeness.

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