AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s political community may be atwitter about this year’s U.S. Senate election, but the race hasn’t registered with a leader of a top national polling firm.
“Angus King? Is he related to Stephen?” asked Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.
Newport might not know the particulars of this year’s Senate contest in Maine, but he knows polling — and he touts its value to the American political process.
In the increasingly polarized political climate of 2012, scientific public opinion surveys offer a rare unbiased tool to protect democracy, according to Newport, even if the information pollsters provide is manipulated for partisan gain.
“Polls are a positive force in our democracy,” Newport, author of “Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People,” said in a phone interview Friday. Well-done public polling helps ensure that Americans are not “misled by demagogues who have access to the media,” he said. “There’s more interest in polling than ever.”
Gallup focuses largely on national issues and rarely conducts state polls, Newport said. In general, contests with three or more credible candidates, such as the U.S. Senate race in Maine, are prone to frequent shifts in pre-election polling results, he said.
On Friday, when Gallup released new polling results that reflect a historic level of distrust for the media among the American public, polls stand out from the “huge swirl of information going on” as a scientific way to let voters know where races stand and what Americans think about the people who aspire to govern them, Newport said.
However, it’s important to recognize that polls vary in quality and that campaign seasons are dynamic, he said. Polling results are affected by “the news environment,” he said, pointing to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s surreptitiously recorded comments about Americans who don’t pay income tax as an example of an event that prompts pollsters to explore developing trends — in this case by asking questions about dependence on government.
Gallup, which did polling by personal interviews in people’s homes until the late 1980s, according to Newport, continues to revise its methodology to reflect technological changes. “Since 2008, we’ve added cellphones to samples we call,” he said. “That will probably change in five years” to reflect more texting or other forms of communication.
The theory behind polling hasn’t changed though, he said. Gallup conducts ongoing research to determine the idiosyncrasies of its test region, then applies a “nonpartisan and even-handed” approach to collecting a broad enough random sample to accurately reflect the prevailing public sentiment.
However, how poll results are used has changed during the past two decades, Newport said. In addition to the emergence of “aggregators,” who collect and analyze other people’s poll data — often with a partisan slant — political campaigns now much more aggressively strive to frame poll results, almost from the moment they are released.
Newport noted a change in the political establishment’s reaction to pre-election poll results during the 1992 presidential campaign, the first he covered for Gallup. That year, Democratic party candidate — and soon-to-be president — Bill Clinton’s campaign adhered to a “war room mentality, which says you’ve got to immediately get an attack or talking point out there so [adverse polling data] can’t stand alone,” Newport said.
That tactic is now the norm, according to Newport, who noted that it applies to media reports as well.
Ever the professional pollster, Newport said that, other than the way campaigns react to pre-election polling, years of collecting polling data reveals that “it’s difficult to show that it has an effect either way” on voters’ final decisions at the ballot box.
Matthew Gagnon, a Republican political strategist and author of the Pine Tree Politics blog, agrees.
“Very few people notice changes in polling and then make voting decisions based on who the perceived winner is,” he wrote in an email to the BDN. “That is not to say, however, that polls do not have an effect on mass voter psychology, because they do.”
Gagnon pointed to the 2010 Maine gubernatorial election as an example of how changing poll figures influenced voters. For much of that campaign season, independent Eliot Cutler polled behind Democrat Libby Mitchell, as both trailed Republican Paul LePage.
“In the last week of that election, the movement in the polls told voters that Mitchell was being abandoned, and that if they had any hope of beating LePage, then they were more likely to win if they supported Cutler instead,” Gagnon said. “In the final three or four days of the race, Cutler surged by probably about 15 to 20 points and came close to beating LePage. It was ultimately the polls that gave voters the signal about how to make that final determination between Mitchell and Cutler.”
Newport refers to that as the “bandwagon effect,” although he noted that late surges in polls can also motivate voters who dislike the rallying candidate to vote for an opponent whom they might not have otherwise supported.
Emily Shaw, an assistant professor of political science at Thomas College in Waterville, agrees with Gagnon’s assessment of the 2010 Maine gubernatorial race. She believes that pre-election polls will play an important role in this year’s U.S. Senate race. As was the case in 2010, many voters will base Election Day decisions on late polling trends, she said.
“Ultimately, people will make a strategic decision about which candidate has the best chance of winning, and that is who they will support,” Shaw said.
Michael Cuzzi, a former Democratic campaign strategist who manages the Portland office of VOX Global, a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs consulting firm, says it’s still early for polls to catch voters’ attention.
“A very narrow universe of people is paying attention to this,” he said. “I don’t think most people are dialed into the polls right now.”
Gagnon says that universe expands as Election Day nears.
“We are in the period of the election that is less than 60 days from voting, which means that people are now paying attention,” Gagnon said. “Voters are a lot more savvy than most political operatives give them credit for. People pay attention to polls, and especially so in the last 60 days before an election.”