Nevada: Who Can Tell?

By Jim Ellis

Aug. 30, 2017 — Two new Nevada Republican polls were released Tuesday that differ so greatly it is difficult to confirm which, if either, is accurate.

JMC Analytics and Polling publicized their new Silver State data (Aug. 24-25; 700 likely GOP registered voters responding to an automated survey) that posts challenger and frequent candidate Danny Tarkanian to be running ahead of incumbent GOP Sen. Dean Heller, 39-31 percent, as the two prepare for a competitive 2018 Republican primary battle.

The Heller campaign immediately responded by releasing their Tarrance Group data from earlier in the month (Aug. 14-16; 300 likely Republican primary voters) that finds a completely different result. According to the Tarrance survey, Sen. Heller actually enjoys a comfortable lead over Tarkanian, 55-33 percent.

So, what does this tell us? In looking at both polling methodologies, we can see certain flaws. The JMC poll is automated with the caveat that the sampling group does not necessarily come from the Nevada universe of actual registered Republican voters. Rather, they could be from a larger segment where the respondents to an automated telephone survey are either self-identified Republicans or from geographic areas where GOP candidates normally perform strongly. Notice that the methodology statement language refers to the sample as being comprised of “likely Republican registered voters”, as opposed to the normal “likely Republican (or Democratic) primary voters.”

On the other hand, the Tarrance Group poll, with a very small sample of 300 respondents in a statewide setting, is likely a flash poll conducted during mid-August, or could be part of a multi-day tracking program. Even the methodology statement describes the polling error factor at “plus or minus 5.8 percent in 95 of 100 cases,” which is very high, but consistent for a small-sample statewide survey.

In reality, both polls are probably less reliable than data normally reported and thus could at least partially explain the large divergence between the two results. In looking more closely at the two totals, however, the Tarkanian support level isn’t that far apart. Notice that JMC projects him at 39 percent, while Tarrance tabs the challenger with 33 percent. Sen. Heller’s totals, however, are leagues apart ranging from JMC’s abnormally low 31 percent for an incumbent within his own party all the way to 55 percent in Tarrance.

Clearly, the Tarrance data seems to arrive at a more reasonable number for an incumbent such as Heller, but even 55 percent must be considered low and suggests re-nomination trouble. On the other hand, the JMC total of just 31 percent is more consistent with an incumbent who polls a very poor 34:48 percent personal approval rating when the same sample gives President Trump one of his best job approval results in the country, 80:14 percent positive to negative.

For Trump to score this well within a Republican subset in a state where he lost last November, suggests that the sample may have been drawn from heavy Trump regions as opposed to a straight Republican Party registered voter list or even strongly GOP voting precincts. This may provide another explanation for Sen. Heller’s abnormally poor standing.

It is likely that the JMC poll is also a response to the highly publicized healthcare issue flap between President Trump and Sen. Heller, where the former called out the latter for his potential vote against the Obamacare repeal legislation. In the end, Sen. Heller voted with his party to move the leadership bill through the process, yet Tarkanian is unfairly attacking him for not keeping promises made to the GOP electorate in relation to the issue and suggesting that the Senator did otherwise.

In conclusion, it appears that both polls have methodology issues and neither one should be taken at face value. It is clear, however, that the Tarkanian challenge to Heller does have legs, because not even the Heller camp’s own poll finds the incumbent in particularly strong shape among his own party faithful against an opponent who has run multiple times for various offices and failed to ever win a general election.

All of this lends further credence to that analysis that Nevada is the Democrats’ strongest 2018 Senate conversion opportunity.

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