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Four Pollsters on the Incumbent Rule

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I spent yesterday morning at a post election conference sponsored by Charlie Cook's Political Report, James Carville, Congressman Tom Davis and the Northern Virginia Community College. The conference kicked off with a panel of four very experienced campaign pollsters, two Republicans and two Democrats. They covered many subjects, and I can't possibly do them all justice here, but I do want to pass along some of what the pollsters had to say on what I typically refer to as the Incumbent Rule.

Carville called it "as good a pollster panel as has ever been put together," and he wasn't kidding. The Republican pollsters were Republicans Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies and Dave Sackett of The Tarrance Group. The Democrats were Harrison Hickman of Global Strategy Group and Stan Greenberg of Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner. Each is a principal in their own firm, and each has been involved in some of the most competitive statewide races since the 1980s, and collectively their four firms polled in over 180 races for Senate, Governor and the U.S. House in 2006. It is hard to imagine any four campaign pollsters with more comparable experience.

Carville moderated the pollster panel, and his first question concerned his observation that a "doctrine" prevalent in the 1980s among campaign mangers and consultants "that challengers close better than incumbents" in the final days of a campaign. As Michael Barone put it earlier this year, the idea is that "an incumbent is not going to get a higher percentage in an election than he got in the polls." Carville's question: Is that doctrine no longer valid?

A more complete look at the incumbent rule and remains on my to-do list for the next month or so, but in writing up this post, I took a quick look at how incumbents fared in the (still largely) unofficial election results as compared to our final last-five-poll average in the most competitive races for Senate and Governor.


As the table below shows, on average in these particular races looking only at the last five polls in each race, the rule did not apply particularly well. On average, both incumbents and their prime challengers picked up 2.4 percentage points -- an almost exact 50-50 split in the most competitive statewide races.** In some cases, such as the Pennsylvania Senate race, virtually all of the undecided went to challenger Bob Casey, but the pattern was otherwise typically muddled.

The tougher question is the one inherent in Carville's question to the pollsters: Why the recent change in what had been pollster doctrine? Here is a summary of what the four pollsters had to say:

  • Republican Neil Newhouse noted the example of his client, incumbent Republican Jim Gerlach (Pennsylvania-6), who was in a 44% to 44% tie on their final internal poll conducted a week before the election. In the "old days," Newhouse said, we would have assumed an easy Murphy victory. However, Gerlach ultimately prevailed (51% to 49%) after a closing with a final television ad featuring a personal appeal by Gerlach that Newhouse credited for the victory. As for the incumbent rule, Newhouse said, "we are seeing a bit of a change, but not much consistency." While he still tends to give challengers the "benefit of the doubt" when incumbents are under 50%, Newhouse believes it is no longer "carte blanche automatic" that the undecided vote on the final poll will all go to the challenger.
  • Republican Dave Sackett agreed and credited the much shorter "fifteen minute" news cycle for the ability of incumbents to turn the tables on challengers late in the campaign. He noted that his client Deborah Pryce (Ohio-15) as trailing "all the way through" on internal tracking polls, which would presumably include one in the final week (he noted via email that the margin had closed to within sampling error on the final poll). However, according to Sackett, the Pryce campaign outspent Democratic challenger Mary Jo Kilroy by a two-to-one margin over the final weekend, and credits her narrow victory to that final burst of communication.
  • Democrat Harrison Hickman pointed out that in the 1980s, the conventional wisdom was to avoid mention of your opponent, a habit that helped explain why challengers won much of the late undecided vote. Now, he said, the general pattern is for incumbents to vigorously attack challengers throughout the campaign. "Incumbents put so much more pressure on challengers then they used to." (See this pre-election column by Dick Meyer of CBS News that includes data Hickman gathered showing the impact of negative advertising on candidate favorable ratings since 1986).
  • Finally, Democrat Stan Greenberg agreed with his colleagues that the traditional pattern, seen as recently as 1996 when Bill Clinton got 49% in their final poll and 49% of the vote on Election Day, has changed. He speculated about another possible explanation, that elections for the House and Senate have become increasingly "nationalized" since 1994. Pointing to the increasing "partisan consistency" in pre-election polls (each party's candidates winning 90% or more of voters of that party's voters), Greenberg argued that elections now "get crystallized in a specific way nationally" and that local elections get "swept up" in a national tide that may negate the traditional last minute shift of undecided voters to challengers.

Of course, the solution to this very interesting puzzle is inherently speculative. It is also worthy of more analysis than I gave it above. Hopefully, we'll have more to come over the next month or so.