01/13/2010 06:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Massachusetts Polls Update (1/13)

The flurry of commentary on polling in the Massachusetts Senate race plus a handful of new polls -- some real, some rumor -- provide some new topics worth discussing. I'm going to take these in order, but none take away from the obvious conclusion that the race is likely to be a lot closer than most assumed a few weeks ago.

1) Recent Trend? On Sunday, I bemoaned the lack of apples-to-apples polling comparisons available over the last few weeks. Yesterday's update from Rasmussen Reports showing Scott Brown trailing Martha Coakley by just two percentage points (49% to 47%) appears to provide such a comparison, since Rasmussen's track a week ago showed Coakley leading by nine (50% to 41%). But read the fine print:

The results of this poll are not precisely comparable with last week's results because this poll includes the independent candidate by name while the previous poll simply offered the choice of "some other candidate." Additionally, the latest poll results include "leaners."

Leaners are those who don't initially have a preference for one of the major candidates but indicate that they are leaning in that direction. Without "leaners," Brown was actually ahead by a single percentage point.

The pressing of leaners is the bigger issue here, particularly given a pattern I'll discuss below. Rasmussen shows independent Joe L. Kennedy receiving just 3% of the vote (this Kennedy is unrelated to the more famous Kennedy family that includes the late Senator and his nephew Joseph P. Kennedy, who once represented Boston in Congress).

Now, I don't want to belabor this point. My colleague Marc Ambinder reported last night that the "internal Democratic tracking in MA last week had Coakley up by 15. Today, she's up by five." And there is no denying that Brown has significantly narrowed the gap since November, so it's likely that he has continued to gain in recent days.

Our chart above -- which happily compares apples and oranges without remorse, but does not include the rumored internal polling -- does indicate a narrowing margin since January 1.

2) Turnout or Persuasion? On Sunday, I argued that "turnout matters," mostly because cross-tabulations in both the Boston Globe/UNH and Rasmussen surveys show a much closer race among the most interested and likely voters than among other respondents. This latest Rasmussen survey (added to the bottom of the table below) confirms the trend:


We can assume that a special election will draw fewer voters than an off-year general election for Governor or Senator held in November, but it is not clear where to draw the line in defining the likely electorate. And efforts to increase turnout will help Coakley: And for every three previously disinterested voters who change their minds and decide to vote this week, two will be Coakley supporters..

In that context, I have to agree with Chuck Todd and company at NBC's First Read:

[I]t probably doesn't help Brown that the contest has been nationalized. All the ads Democratic and conservative groups are now airing, all the money that's now flowing into the race, and all the reminders about how health care hangs in the balance will likely boost Democratic enthusiasm.

That said, I agree with Nate Silver that the close nature of the race is "not just about turnout." As Pollster reader Harry Enten (aka Poughies) noted on Sunday, the voters identified as independent on the automated surveys support Scott Brown by margins of better than two-to-one, while the Boston Globe/University of New Hampshire poll shows a very slight Coakley advantage among both independent identifiers and the much larger group of those who report they declared no party affiliation when they registered to vote.


Having made these comparisons, let me offer some big caveats: In comparing "independents" we have two variables that might introduce house effects -- the likely voter screen and the way the pollster asks about party identification -- plus much larger random error (as these smaller subgroups typically involve much smaller sample sizes). That said, I can't account for all the difference between the Globe and the other polls on the basis of the LV screen and question wording alone. Given that, as Harry Enten notes, the surveys are much more similar in terms of the results they report for Democrats and Republicans, it looks like the differences separating the Globe and the automated surveys have a lot to do with those who consider themselves independent.

[An aside: it is likely that a more stringent likely voter screen would have a slightly disproportionate impact on independents. I checked some national pre-election polling data from 2004 and 2008 and found that while narrowing from the least restrictive to most restrictive likely voter models makes independents slightly more Republican leaning, it is hard to see how such a phenomenon alone explains the 20+ point differences in the table above].

If you accept the very close margins on the PPP and Rasmussen surveys as real, then Brown is successfully persuading a lot of non-Republicans to support him who typically vote Democratic.

Here's a hypothesis that might explain the pattern: if Brown ekes out a victory or comes within a few percentage points of winning, it will because he wins the support of a lot of voters -- most of them independent -- who typically vote Democratic. Brown has probably not yet closed the sale with these voters, given their prior vote history, but they are poised to support him. Perhaps it is harder for them to tell a live interviewer they are ready to vote Republican. Perhaps the more anonymous nature of the automated methodology better simulates the act of voting which will ultimately force a decision.

3) A 50% Coakley Ceiling? On Monday, pollster Scott Rasmussen noted that all three surveys available then "show Coakley right around the 50% mark....If Coakley is truly right around [50%], then the race is hers to lose, and Brown's best possible scenario is a very narrow victory." Rasmussen is correct about the consistency of of Coakley's support. It extends to his most recent survey and to the narrower cuts of likely and interested voters from both the Rasmussen and Globe surveys:


Consider again the theory I offered above. It may be that Brown is on the verge of winning the support of a lot of voters who typically vote for Democrats, so the differences in methodology -- how hard each pollster effectively pushes for a decision -- produce a much bigger variation in his measured support.

Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics has a different theory. He argues that the pattern evokes the much discussed "incumbent rule" (popularized by pollster Nick Panagakis) and thus expects a decisive break of undecideds likely for Brown. Trende concedes that the rule has weakened over the past decade, a development that he attributes to the faster flow of information in the internet/cable age, something Mickey Kaus has dubbed the Feiler Faster thesis.  

Previously, incumbents generally enjoyed strong name recognition, while challengers were typically unknown. The reasoning behind the undecided rule," Trende says, "is that if voters haven't fallen in love with the incumbent by election day, they aren't going to vote for him (or her). The undecideds, therefore, can be expected to take a flier on the challenger." He argues that in a world where information flows faster, races for Governor, Senate and Congress now "receive a lot more scrutiny than they used to," so challengers are better known and the "rule" breaks down. At very least, the rule "is probably inapplicable as a predictive device...when you have two well-known candidates."

This special election, he says, is different, and Coakley is effectively the incumbent:

We have a sitting Attorney General who came out of a contested primary, going up against a more-or-less completely unknown state Senator. She's struggling to get above 50%. All of this points toward a very close final race -- potentially much closer than a week ago when I guessed at a 54-46 spread. Again, this is also consistent with what we're seeing in the variance in the Coakley/Brown numbers. Coakley should be worried.

Coakley should be worried -- and may well face a ceiling of support near 50% -- but I would not count on it. First, Brown is a long way from "completely unknown." Even the Globe poll, completed a week ago, found more than two thirds (69%) of likely voters able to rate Brown either favorably or unfavorably. Second, while Coakley is better known, the name recognition disparity between the two candidates is not unusual, even in the internet age.

Finally, I think Trende misses the best explanation for the incumbent rule, offered three ago by my old boss, Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman:

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).

And of course, over the last 24 hours, the Coakley campaign, the DSCC and SEIU have all devoted significant media buys to negative attacks on Brown. Those attack ads may or may not persuade (a different issue), and will certainly be answered, but if we are truly living in a Feiler Faster world, expect the negative messages to disseminate rapidly.

Five years ago, a certain blogger noticed a similar pattern in the polling on the Bush-Kerry race in Ohio. Bush's numbers were amazingly consistent -- four polls had him at 47% and one at 46% -- while Kerry's numbers fluctuated between 45% and 50%. The blogger speculated that this pattern showed "the underlying principles of the Incumbent Rule in action" and boldly predicted that Bush "is likely headed for an Ohio defeat."

Bush carried Ohio, 50.8% to 48.7%. Incumbents did not break decisively to Kerry. If anything, Bush gained over the last two weeks, mostly because he made the race as much about Kerry as Bush. The big question hanging over the Massachusetts Senate race is whether Coakely and her allies can do the same to Brown over the next week.