- Most reporting on surveys is less than adequate. Even the big news organizations like the Washington Post and CNN never seem to provide enough context as to how the survey was conducted and what was going on that might influence the results. Idaho reporters are at an even greater disadvantage in reporting on polls since they are often writing about something for which they have no first hand knowledge. An Idaho reporter gets what looks like interesting information from a Rasmussen - or soon you can bet from a more Democratic-leaning pollster - and about all they do is report the findings and add the comments from the opposing camps. When it comes to polls we need more context. We need explanation of how the surveys were conducted. What and how many questions were asked? We need more detail. We need more reporting.
- The real value in polls is contained in the "internals." We all love the horse race question: "if the election were held today"...and those results typically get the headlines. The really valuable strategic information is always buried deeper in a good survey. How are the demographics of age, religion and gender sliced? Do Idahoans feel the state is heading in the right direction? What issues make one candidate or the other vulnerable? The horse race is fun and it tells us something, but it is far from the complete picture. I'd love to see such a survey, but that information is going to be held very close to the vest by both campaigns and pollsters like Rasmussen don't do that kind of sampling, at least not that they make public.
- Idaho news organizations would do all political junkies and the election process a real favor if they were to develop their own research capabilities. Good research costs money, but perhaps a collection of news organizations could pool the resources - The New York Times/CBS News model - and provide the context and "internals" that would provide real value to voters and policy makers.
Lessons From Distant Campaigns
I have been deeply involved in two statewide races for governor - 1986 and 1990 - and have watched every race since from the back row. One of the surprising findings from our research in 1986 - Cecil Andrus was mounting his comeback that year after having been off an Idaho ballot for a dozen years - was that fully a third of the probable voters didn't know the former governor and Secretary of the Interior from a bale of hay. He just didn't register with those voters who had come of voting age or moved to the state since he had been governor in the 1970's. In other words, the candidate needed to be introduced to these voters.
The lesson: most candidates underestimate the level of public understanding of who they are and what they stand for. This is a particular problem for first time candidates and it often proves fatal.
[A footnote: Andrus relied on Jimmy Carter's controversial and outspoken pollster Pat Caddell for research in 1986 with mixed results. Doug Schoen, who polled for Bill Clinton, did the job splendidly in 1990. In the small world category, Scott Rasmussen touts endorsements from both Caddell and Schoen on his website. Both Caddell and Schoen often provide contrarian views at odds with national Democratic talking points and both provide commentary for FOX News. Each pollster has predicted massive Democratic loses at the polls this fall as a result of health care legislation.]
Another polling lesson for me comes from 1992 when four-term Democratic Rep. Richard Stallings, who represented southern and eastern Idaho, ran for the United States Senate, I'm going to bet Stallings' name ID north of the Salmon River never got above 60%. I can't prove that notion, but the election outcome demonstrated that Stallings was not able to connect with voters in that region of the state. For a guy from Rexburg, the territory north of Riggins might as well have been in another state.
The lesson: being well known in Boise doesn't mean much in St. Anthony or Sandpoint. Statewide name recognition is a long, hard and expensive slog. You earn it with time or with money or both. It is but the absolutely first step to a successful political campaign. There is an old, old fomulation in politics that holds that every candidate must travel a cycle. First the name must be established, then who they are as a person can be developed, and finally comes the message. But it all starts with name recognition. You don't have that you don't have much of a political campaign.
Here's my guess: Otter is not in quite as good a shape as the Rasmussen poll indicates and Allred is not in quite as bad a shape. Such polls measure name ID and party affiliation and not a lot more. Having said that, and with the acknowledgement that it is early in the cycle, campaigns do develop a certain rhythm and pace - call it the narrative - and this one is starting to firm up. Today it is very much Otter's race to lose and his name ID, his long record of familiarity with Idaho voters, Idaho's strong R tendencies and this being a GOP year all put him in solid shape to be re-elected.
A further guess: Otter will run a very traditional, tried and true Republican campaign based on presenting a united GOP front and emphasizing the party's anti-tax stand. Couple that message - we're Republicans and you can trust us on taxes - with a strong ground game to turn out voters and that has been enough for a GOP gubernatorial candidate to win every time over the last 20 years.
If Allred is to have any chance of pulling the big upset, he had better start running soon with the political equivalent of football's "wishbone offense." He needs something to revolutionize the game. He has to shake up the race in a very significant way, change the developing narrative and move the polls or he'll find himself on the wrong side of "Dewey beats Truman."