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Don't do polls! They're addictive


Keith Gaddie October 12th, 2006

The joy of politics is watching people freak out over polls. Pollsters perform them, the news outlets run them and the activist community freaks out over the results. The advantaged act as if Nostrada...

The joy of politics is watching people freak out over polls. Pollsters perform them, the news outlets run them and the activist community freaks out over the results. The advantaged act as if Nostradamus had come from the 16th century with a forecast from his golden tripod. The disadvantaged seek some reason, any reason, for why the poll is wrong. To be a pollster is to learn that no politician or consultant has friends, only interests. You're only good if you're sleeping with them.
 
For the political consumer, the best information in polls gets ignored in the horse-race mind-set that governs how polls are used in the media and how politicians treat polls. The best information is inside the polls, in the "crosstabs." You learn why some politicians do better than others, and you glean knowledge about what campaigns need to do or where they'll target their efforts.
 
For instance, if you look at the last poll Bill Shapard and I conducted for KWTV News 9 (available at TvPoll.com), Democratic Gov. Brad Henry is up 22 points over Republican U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook, and Republican Rep. Todd Hiett and Democratic Rep. Jari Askins are tied in the lieutenant governor's race. Istook and Hiett are both being outspent by their opponents, but there is a 22-point differential in their performance. Why?
 
A look in the crosstabs indicates the deficiencies of Istook relative to Hiett in the electorate. Henry and Istook are statistically tied among frequent churchgoers (about 30 percent of all respondents), while Hiett has a commanding 30-point lead over Askins among the same frequent churchgoers. Istook trails Henry by 25 points among weekly churchgoers (another 30 percent of respondents), while Hiett is only eight points back of Askins among the same group. Istook is having trouble with the most religious and evangelical of Republican voters, and it is a large part of the reason he is not in contention five weeks out from election. Or, Hiett's "Gather Family Hour"-styled campaign has kept the faithful home with him.
 
The gender gap that is usually evident in party politics is absent in the governor's race. Henry is leading similarly among men and women, while Hiett and Askins each command similar leads among their respective gender.
 
Well, now you've had a peek, maybe you want some more? Good! Go look at the other statewide races, and see where Oklahoma Democrats defy convention by attracting usually Republican votes, or where Democrats are not making inroads in the electorate despite their incumbency. The governor and the attorney general are doing well, but for the electorate writ large, Democrats for insurance commissioner, treasurer, labor commissioner and auditor have yet to make their case, and to mobilize either their base or the potential crossover vote in the manner of Henry and Drew Edmondson.
 
Look deep in the polls for the unconvinced voters. It will tell you where effort will be placed in the coming month, and what kind of messages politicians will run on. Istook's campaign has to run on immigration because it is a message that appeals to the slipping base, of manly conservative evangelical Protestants. They first must dislodge Henry from his Zen incumbency, which makes him attractive because state government represents the only effective government seen by Oklahomans over the past two years. - Keith Gaddie 
 
Gaddie is a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma and partner in TVpoll.com.
 
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