A Lesson Learned the Hard Way

08/08/2006 02:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For those waiting on the results of the today's Connecticut primary, here is a cautionary tale about the limits of polling in a primary election.  Four years ago this week, I learned a lesson the hard way about what pre-election polls mean, and sometimes, what they don't.

Four years ago, I served as the campaign pollster for Rep. Lynn Rivers, then a four-term Democratic incumbent from Michigan who, by virtue of Republican redistricting, had been had been thrown into the same district with long time Democratic Congressman John Dingell.  The August 2002 primary in which they faced off has some parallels to the Connecticut contest worth considering. 

That primary. according to the Almanac of Politics, was "Michigan's most expensive House primary ever," with the two candidates spending a combined $4 million plus millions more spent by interest group independent expenditures on both sides.  Dingell, who served in Congress for more than 45 years including years as a powerful committee chair had worked more recently with prominent Republicans to pass legislation.  In the campaign, Dingell raised millions from favored interests, organized labor and prominent national figures in Washington.  Rivers had, by all accounts, a far more liberal voting record and the backing of groups supporting the environment, abortion rights, gay rights and arms control and of course, the EMILY's List national donor network. 

I hesitate to raise the Dingell-Rivers example because the differences with the Lieberman-Lamont race are in many ways as striking as the similarities.  John Dingell, unlike Lieberman, was and remains a revered figure to his Democratic base.  Unlike Lieberman, he maintained high favorable ratings from Democrats throughout the new district during the 2002 race.  Moreover, both candidates had pledged to support the eventual winner, so there was never any talk of either running as an independent.  While they differed on issues like the environment and abortion rights, Dingell and Rivers had very similar voting records on the issues of central concern to Democrats in 2002, such as the economy, health care and education.  The race ultimately turned on contrasts of age, style and experience.  And of course, the Iraq War -- the dominant issue of 2006 -- was still barely on the horizon in August 2002 (although two months after the primary both Dingell and Rivers voted against the resolution that authorized the war).   

The valuable lesson from this story involves the limitations of polling. Dingell led in most of the early polls, but the race appeared to tighten as Rivers ran television advertising toward the end.  The final polls conducted by the Detroit Free Press, EMILY's List and yours truly on behalf of the Rivers campaign all indicated either a dead heat or a slight but insignificant Rivers lead.  My last poll had Rivers two points ahead.  I never heard the exact numbers, but consultants for the Dingell campaign later told me that their internal polls showed essentially the same thing, except that they had Dingell ahead by a few insignificant points rather than behind.  On Election Day, given the trend, they expected to lose.  Yet when all the votes were counted, Dingell had won by a resounding eighteen-point landslide, 59% to 41%. 

So what went so wrong?  Other pollsters may disagree, but I believe we erred in our assumptions about turnout and the way we sampled "likely voters."   Michigan, like Connecticut, had recently switched to an held an August primary** and had not seen a seriously contested primary in years.  Turnout for the August primary in the four previous off-year Democratic primaries had varied between thirty and fifty thousand voters.   The most optimistic forecasters guessed turnout could go as high as sixty thousand voters.  But the actual turnout stunned everyone:  98,952.     That was nearly three quarters of the number that would later cast a ballot for Dingell against his Republican opponent in November. 

This brings me to an important structural difference between the Michigan and Connecticut primaries.  Unlike Connecticut, Michigan has no party registration and the 2002 primary was open to all voters regardless of their prior vote history.  So independents and even Republicans were free to cast ballots but just showing up on Election Day.  Moreover, most of the pollsters were sampling from lists of registered voters (rather than using a random digit dial or RDD sample to reach all telephone households) largely to match the gerrymandered district boundaries, but also to more efficiently identify those with a past history of primary voting.  We will never know for sure, but my assumption is that all the pollsters erred by screening to tightly for Democrats and past primary voters, the kinds of voters who were more likely to support a liberal candidate like Rivers.   I believe that our methodology led to an underestimate of the turnout surge in support of Dingell. 

So what does this imply for today's Connecticut primary?  Again, I am reluctant to draw too close a parallel because Connecticut's primary is open to registered Democrats only, and the public polls have been based on RDD sampling.  The combination makes it less likely that the polls will miss as badly as in the Rivers-Dingell race. 

Where the Dingell-Rivers race may be most instructive is regarding turnout.  As in Michigan's 15th District four years ago, Connecticut voters have been bombarded with an unprecedented flow of information through all media.  As Connecticut's Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz put it yesterday, "You can't turn on the television, pick up the newspaper or listen to the radio and not know there's a primary,"  Add in door-knocking, phone banking, robo-calling and other activity and you have one inescapable message:  There's a primary and it features a choice between two candidates with very different positions on the Iraq War.  So Bysewicz has good reason to guess that, according Greenwich Time, "turnout for the primary could reach 40 percent, well above the 25 percent historic average for primaries featuring a governor's race on the ballot." 

Some may argue that a larger turnout helps Joe Lieberman in the same way it helped John Dingell four years ago.  I'm not so sure.  This primary is open to only Connecticut's 696,823 registered Democrats.   Any cross-over phenomenon is limited to the roughly 29,000 who registered for the first time or switched their registration to vote in this primary.   Among the bulk of registered Democrats, I don't see much of an opening for an influx of enthusiastic, energized Joe Lieberman supporters who do not normally vote in primary elections.  The potential for a big turnout among passionate anti-Bush, anti-war Democrats is another story entirely. The Quinnipiac poll completed in mid-July reported results for all registered Democrats, not just the "likely voter" subgroup.  Ninety-one percent (91%) of the Democrats disapproved of President Bush's job performance, 93% disapproved of his performance on Iraq and only 13% agreed with Joe Lieberman's position on the war. 

So here's my bottom line:  Given the turnout puzzle means, I wouldn't be surprised to see tonight's result differ significantly -- in either direction -- from the recent poll results.  Historically, polls in this sort of primary have not been the most reliable.  However, if I had to guess, the energy and intensity appear to be all on Lamont's side and a large turnout probably works in his favor today.  But that's just a guess.  Time will tell.

**Correction:  I obviously erred in the original version of this post in stating that Michigan had recently switched to an August primary in 2002.  As multiple commenters point out, they have had August primaries for a long time.  I'm not sure what memory lapse led to that goof, but I apologize for the error.