01/15/2010 11:42 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Masschusetts: Poll Coverage and Dissonant Ads

This morning, I'm sure of only one thing about the Massachusetts Senate race: The perception among Massachusetts voters that Democrat Martha Coakley is likely to defeat Republican Scott Brown, is not long for this world. Even the newly released Suffolk University poll shows that by a better than two-to-one margin (64% to 26%) Massachusetts still believe Coakley will win. But since Suffolk is a local University, uses live interviewers and has the Boston Herald and Boston's NBC affiliate as sponsors, their finding that Brown leads Coakley by a not quite statistically significant four points (50% to 46%) is huge news in Massachusetts this morning.

In addition to the Herald front page, the poll was also the big story on all of the local Boston television stations last night or this morning (online video available as of this writing at WCVB-5, WHDH-7, WFXT-25, WBZ-38). Watch those stories, and its hard to imagine that perceptions of a likely Coakley victory will survive the weekend. If you are a Democrat, that is probably the only silver lining in today's news.

On the other hand, the tone of these stories follows the all too typical pattern of political news coverage: an analytical focus on strategy and tactics: "What happened to Coakley's lead?" "Why is Brown surging?" In assessing tactics, they inevitably praise Brown's efforts ("Brown has been out-hustling Coakley on the campaign trail"), while dissecting the apparent failures of the Coakley campaign. If "momentum" is a factor in campaign politics, this sort of coverage is a big reason why.

Another troubling pattern for Democrats: To the extent that these stories discuss the negative advertising being run by Coakley and her Democratic allies this week, it is only as a possible explanation for her poll numbers. The WBZ story, for example, cites callers to local talk radio and emails to the station complaining about negative ads. The WBZ anchor then concludes:

That is the combination of [Coakley's] problems, visibility and negativity. You can go negative, political ads work, political consultants always say that, but only if the voter knows exactly who you are, so at this point, since there is this perception that she hasn't been out there hustling as much...since voters don't know who she is, all they see from her is negativity at this point, and at the 11th hour, that's tough to overcome.

That's not quite right. Negative advertising works when voters see its message as credible. Ad buys as heavy as the combined efforts of the Coakley campaign, the DSCC and SEIU have undoubtedly been noticed and, as such, will create some cognitive dissonance among voters still leaning to Brown. The big question is how those voters resolve the dissonance. If they come to accept the arguments the ads are making as valid, some may back away from supporting Brown. But cognitive dissonance theory says that denial and rationalization are more powerful instincts than acceptance, so it is easier for voters who already like Brown to dismiss the content of the ads as typical political "mudslinging."

The key to resolving that dissonance is the way the news media covers the campaign: If news stories focus on the substance of the ads and the debate between the candidates, there is a greater chance that the ads will have an impact. If coverage focuses on tactics alone -- as horse race stories inevitably do -- the ads are more likely to fail.

One last thing about the Suffolk Poll. One astute Pollster reader emails with a question: The poll asks "if you know when the election is (and terminates the interview if you don't have the right answer). Is that unusual for special elections?"

That question is a little unusual, in my experience, but in fairness to the Suffolk University pollsters, there really is no "usual" with likely voter screens, especially in special elections. Selecting likely voters is really where political polling is more art than science. To make matters worse, pollsters do not typically reveal the full text of their screen questions, so give the Suffolk pollsters credit for being fully transparent on that score.

I think their screen is reasonable. After all, you're not very likely to vote if you don't know the election is next week [UPDATE: but see the contrary view of reader Dan below]. The classic Gallup likely voter model includes a similar question about knowledge of your voting location (although that is just one item in a seven question scale). I would question the Suffolk screen if I believed that the Coakley campaign was poised to mount a massive weekend get-out-the-vote effort aimed to reminding identified supporters about where and when they vote. By most accounts, that is not likely.