Thursday, September 28, 2006

Why The O's Poll is Great News For Kulo

As you can imagine, The O was likely pleased as punch to reveal the results of their commissioned goobernatorial poll, which showed a 39-34 hard lead for Ted Kulongoski, with an additional four points of leaners on each side yielding the widely reported number 43-38 edge for Ted.

Sidebar for a moment--kudos as usual to the paper and pollster Tim Hibbitts for providing {pdf} full questions in order, partisan breakdowns, and broken-out approvals and candidate choice strengths. That is what makes a poll verifiable and believeable. Contrast that, for example, with an earlier poll commissioned by Saxton's campaign and given by Moore Insights. The results report is one page, with only the horse race question shown, no partisan breakdowns, and no disclosure of any other questions.

Don't ever, ever be fooled by internal polling unless you can see all the questions and know who they talked to. The only internal polls that get published are the ones that make the paying candidate look good in some way. They are best and most often used by challengers to show they are indeed in a race, and deserve more money. It is for this reason that I don't like to use as a cite, despite its comprehensive listing of known polling on the race. There is no excuse for figuring an average of polls and including an internal poll, in my opinion. I also have issues with Zogby's inclusion, since it is by admission not a random sample. There is a lack of finality to the credibility of robopoll places like Rasmussen and Survey USA, but they have performed better than standard phone polls in recent head to head comparisons, and far better than Zogby, so at a minimum if Zogby is acceptable than so are the robots.

Returning to the Oregon race, the closing of the gap between the two candidates is what both The O and Saxton's people are selling. And there's no doubt that Kulongoski's people would be chatting tiredly on the campaign office couches tonight instead of running around like freaks doing pushback, if the lead were in double digits and/or the incumbent was over 50. But as the campaign enters its final month, there is plenty of good news in Hibbitts' numbers that should keep things at the "good frenzy" level for Ted06. Which frankly, as I understand it, is where the campaign wants to be. The thing they fear most is a reputed walkover for Ted which depresses turnout and puts him in actual danger. Keeping their voters motivated and able to help all the way down the ticket is their dream scenario, even if it's the one with the hardest work attached for them.

Let's start with the most important sign, which I was all ready to proudly display here as if I were some kind of polling guru (Not Tim Hibbitts!), until I read in The O story that the Kulo camp had quickly picked up on it too:
"He has put $2 million into attack ads, and still hasn't moved beyond 38," Anna Richter Taylor, Kulongoski's campaign spokeswoman, said of Saxton. "Clearly money matters in elections; message will matter too. We will continue talking about accomplishments, giving a positive message."
Carla and I are still counting how much Saxton has paid to run his ads, so far just in the Portland area it's mighty substantial. And it's true--the first thing I noticed when I saw the numbers was, "Sheeeeit. After all that, Saxton can't get off the 38 schneid!"

Saxton's effort has apparently been partially successful, however; Kulongoski's number is clearly off in the last month, particularly in his favorability ratings. Saxton has softened Ted's number up by hammering endlessly about taxation increases. That's good for Saxton. But the only way to close the deal is to offer himself as a good alternative. So go look at the pollster review, warts and all. After all Saxton's spending and bruising, the race is essentially back to where it was right after the primaries--except Saxton polls a little less now, while if anything Ted is slightly ahead of that pace, even on his downswing.

The favorables inside the poll reflect two more big problems for Saxton. First is that for negative campaigning to work, the incumbent's favorables typically need to go negative--that is, the "disapprove" number becomes higher than the "approve." This allows the challenger to swoop in, with unrealized name recognition in his pocket, tossing out good vibes and earning cheap approval points by the contrast. Problem #1 here for Saxton is that after the barrage of ads, Kulongoski still has a net favorable rating. On balance, they still think he's doing OK. Doing OK tends to get you re-elected, sad as that may sound. I need only refer you to US election 2004, right?

As I said, the other half of that plan is for Saxton to capitalize on his introduction to voters, and gobble up favorable impressions that make him look like the better candidate. The prerequisite for that of course, is not being fully recognizable when you jump into the ring, so you have many new opinions to mold. Saxton's non-recognition number is just 15%, which leaves him very little margin to make up ground and attract new voters. No matter what the gap is, the winner is going to need at least 48% to win, and Saxton has to find 10% from somewhere really quickly. With just a 15% "new blood" pool, that means he needs 2 of every 3 to vote for him. (Also note that Kulongoski-siphoners are only 2%, but Saxton-siphoners Starrett and Morely suck a big 8% off the board.)

And here's what has to make Saxtonites wonder if he isn't reaping what he's sowing in his negative attack: based on current splits, Saxton wouldn't even get half of those potential votes. His favorability rating is a net -2. This is not at all typical of a surging candidate. So-called outsider candidates who challenge a weak incumbent typically have lower overall recognition, but much better favorables than negatives. Let's put it another way: 85% of Oregonians know who he is, and of those folks, only 33% approve of him.

Worse yet, his 'very' unfavorable rating is 17%, essentially no different from Kulongoski's 18%. (Contrast both of those to Bush's whopping 36%. Hee!) Saxton's whole point is "Ted sucks, I'm a change for the better." Neither of these premises is being borne out by the poll results, did you notice.

There's one other thing that's fairly weird about this poll; the party ID percentages are way off. Both the Democrats at 44 and Republicans at 40 are way too high; the July registrations are 39 and 36, respectively. So on raw two-party figures, the poll is weighted ever so slightly toward the Democrats. But the 17% share for independents is low by four percent just on the non-affiliateds. Other parties add another 2% for a total of 23% independent voters.

Are more Oregonians self-identifying as Democratic recently despite filed registrations from potentially years ago? It's not farfetched; Republicans saw a notable swing nationwide from 2000 to 2004, and in places like Florida, old Democratic registrations belie current Republican voters. Either as new Democrats or old independents, Saxton will have trouble drawing those voters to his side. Since we know the real percentage of Democrats is 39%, the showing of 43% for Kulongoski represents a net +4 improvement drawn from other categories of voters. Saxton works from a 36% actual Republican base in Oregon, but gets only a 2% boost in this poll from non-Republicans. To the extent of the role that non major party registrants will play--and admittedly they will play a reduced role in a midterm election--Saxton falls behind when more independent votes are added.

Win-win-win. The O gets its top of the fold headline tomorrow, the Saxton campaign gets new life and a useful new line to use on the phone banks, and the Kulongoski campaign gets their collective ass sparked into gear for the final month, with a damning poll that shows their man having survived a big attack, and a weak challenger who can't get people all that excited about him.

Come to think of it, Tim Hibbitts gets his commission, and we get a story to talk about, and you get to read it. Win-win-win-win-win-win! Ha! Beat that on a Thursday morning, willya!