06/08/2009 05:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

VA: Final Polls and a Canvass with a "Push"

Some notes about the two final surveys out in Virginia over the last 24 hours from automated pollsters PPP and SurveyUSA. Both show Creigh Deeds surging ahead 40% and 42% of the vote, respectively. PPP shows a big move from a previously big undecided to Deeds; SurveyUSA shows a fall-off in support for Terry McAuliffe. And if you want indirect evidence that the live-interviewer, internal campaign polls are showing the same thing, just watch the what the McAuliffe and Moran campaigns were doing over the weekend: Attacking Deeds.

Deeds appears to be on track for a victory, as he is doing well on two of the three keys to the outcome I reviewed on Saturday:

First, his paid media gamble in Northern Virginia appears to be paying off. SurveyUSA shows him surging ahead to a 12-point lead over Moran in their "Northeast" Virginia region (42% to 30%), PPP also shows Deeds ahead of Moran in the 703 area code but by a not-quite statistically significant three points (38% to 35%).

Second, on these two snapshots at least, McAuliffe's support from African-Americans continues to fall short of the decisive that might tip the balance in a closer race: Both PPP and SurveyUSA show McAuliffe a few points head of Deeds (McAulliffe up 32% to 31% on the PPP poll, 38% to 32% according to SurveyUSA).

Nonetheless, I stand by my warning over the weekend about the uncertainty of these estimates: All evidence points to a continuing Deeds surge, but I would not wager much on the precise margin.   

One more thing: Yesterday, the Moran campaign posted "results" from their voter ID phone-banking showing a "surge" in support for their candidate (emphasis added):

Yesterday, the Moran campaign received some of the best results of the campaign and saw a notable uptick in support while phone banking likely primary voters. The campaign made 36,478 calls to highly likely primary voters in Northern Virginia and saw Moran's consistent lead there surge after information about the records of his two opponents was made clear. In Hampton Roads, Moran's canvass calls reached 23,454 likely primary voters and found that Moran's support has increased significantly, moving the race into a virtual three-way tie.

In Richmond, Moran's canvass reached 22,399 likely voters and found that Moran is now within the margin of one of his opponents, while leading the other by several percentage points. And in Roanoke, where Moran just last week began his advertising campaign, his support has risen 150 percent among likely voters.

Let's start with the phrase in boldface, which makes clear that the measurements cited came after the callers presented negative information about Deeds and McAuliffe. At a campaign's 11th hour, a vote question following negative "message testing" (and that's charitable) is not exactly a fair way to measure the current standings. Most casual readers will probably want to stop there, but I'm getting ahead of the story.

It is tempting to write this release off as a bit of last minute spin by a campaign desperate to deliver some good news to it supporters. But in case some are confused, let's be clear: A telephone canvass used to identify supporters is not a poll. It does not involve a random sample of voters and depends on volunteer callers.

Campaigns generally take two approaches to voter ID calls: Either they make "blind" calls that impersonate a poll (the callers say they are taking a "survey" and do not identify the sponsor) or they identify themselves honestly (which means, in this case, saying they are calling on behalf of the Moran campaign).

If the callers in this case identified themselves as Moran supporters -- and if they had not been reading negative information aloud about Deeds and McAuliffe -- the results of a canvass might be useful for identifying Moran's supporters (the ostensible purpose of such a canvass) but not as useful for identifying supporters of other candidates. These voters are more likely to hang up or feign indecision to avoid the "social discomfort" that comes with telling the volunteer caller they are going to vote for someone else (oh, if only I had a hundred dollars for every time a client's voter ID calling looked better than my tracking poll. And even then, the useful "data" would come from a vote preference question asked before trashing Deeds and McAuliffe.

If on the other hand the callers failed to identify themselves as calling on behalf of the Moran campaign, then this release amounts to bragging about "results" from a straight-up push poll: calls made under the guise of a survey that intend to communicate a message to as many voters as possible, in this case a negative message. That is my definition of true push polling and the definition of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR).

So, Moran campaign, which is it?

The Moran campaign did not immediately respond to a voice mail asking for comment.   

P.S.: In a related item, Jerome Armstrong links to both the PPP survey and the Moran canvas numbers and argues that the PPP numbers are off because they expect a 300K turnout, a "radically different model" that relies on "a lot of independents and Republicans voting in the Democratic primary." He cites the Moran canvass numbers as evidence that a smaller turnout bodes better for Moran, then concludes:

A 14-16% [Deeds] lead seems unbeatable, but remember that PPP is predicting a huge turnout too. I know both McAuliffe and Moran have much better field organizations than Deeds, by far-- its not even close. Deeds has gotten all the breaks in the polls; now, does he have the votes? The turnout will tell.

The problem is, as Tom Jensen notes in a blog post this morning, PPP's survey includes a cross-tabulation that essentially models a much lower turnout scenario showing Deeds leading by an even larger margin:

Among voters who turned out for one of the low intensity contests between 2005 and 2007 Deeds is at 46% with Moran at 26% and McAuliffe at just 19%. Among frequent primary voters 48% have an unfavorable opinion of McAuliffe with just 33% viewing him positively.

Among what we would describe as more casual primary voters- those who only turned out for Clinton/Obama- Deeds has a much narrower lead with 36% to 30% for McAuliffe and 22% for Moran.

[Prior association disclosed: David Petts, pollster for the Deeds campaign, was my business partner though 2006].