Summer Polling Often a Poor Predictor

by Nathan L. Gonzales August 22, 2008 · 1:35 PM EDT

House candidates and campaign committees are ramping up efforts to collect polling data from districts across the country, as they look to develop messages and lock in targets for the November elections. But using last cycle as a guide, what looks and smells like a vulnerable incumbent in summer polling leads to mixed results on Election Day.

This cycle, Democratic polls have shown Rep. Jon Porter (R) ahead by 4 points, but well under 50 percent in Nevada’s 3rd district, Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.) behind his Democratic opponent (41 percent to 40 percent), and Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) unable to put the race away at 47 percent to 38 percent.

But how will they fare in November?

Two years ago at this time, Indiana Rep. Chris Chocola (R) was well on his way to losing re-election. He trailed 48 percent to 38 percent in a mid-July Cooper & Secrest Associates survey done for Democrats and lost by 8 points in the general election.

Fellow Indiana Reps. John Hostettler (R) and Mike Sodrel (R) trailed by 4 and 6 points, respectively, in nonpartisan polling taken in early September. Two months later, Hostettler lost by 22 points and Sodrel by 5.

In 2006, some incumbents in tight races in the summer went on to win narrowly.

At the end of August in Pennsylvania’s 6th district, a Benenson Strategy Group Democratic poll had Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) trailing Democrat Lois Murphy 44 percent to 42 percent. Gerlach won 51 percent to 49 percent. Embattled Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) led narrowly 41 percent to 39 percent, also in a late August Benenson survey, but he went on to win 49 percent to 46 percent. And Rep. Heather Wilson (R) led 45 percent to 42 percent at the end of August, according to nonpartisan polling, in New Mexico’s 1st district and won re-election with 50 percent.

Other incumbents such as Rep. Rob Simmons were in tight races through the summer and lost. The Connecticut Republican trailed 41 percent to 40 percent in a late August survey for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and he lost narrowly in November.

Florida Rep. Clay Shaw (R) had a narrow lead, 42 percent to 38 percent, in late August DCCC polling but went on to lose Florida’s 22nd by 4 points. And in New Hampshire, Rep. Charlie Bass (R) led 43 percent to 42 percent in mid-August, according to Democratic polling, and lost by 7 points in November.

Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) led 49 percent 44 percent in a mid-August Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Democratic poll, but was trounced in November by 10 points.

While not an incumbent, former Rep. Ken Lucas (D) led Rep. Geoff Davis (R) 50 percent to 36 percent, at the end of July in a Cooper & Secrest survey, in Lucas’ former Kentucky district. Davis went on to win the general election handily by 9 points.

Some incumbents had huge summer leads and squeaked by in November. Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.) led by 26 points in an early July DCCC survey (and even by 14 points in a mid-October poll) and won 51 percent to 49 percent.

In Washington’s 8th district, Rep. Dave Reichert (R) led Democrat Darcy Burner 54 percent to 41 percent in a SurveyUSA poll at the end of August and only won with 51 percent on Election Day.

And finally, much is made over incumbents and the 50-percent threshold. Despite the fact that with the margin of error of most polls, 49 percent could really be 54 percent, or 44 percent for that matter, the threshold isn’t necessarily predictive.

A mid-June 2006 Public Opinion Strategies GOP poll showed Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) ahead 49 percent to 34 percent, and he lost re-election 50 percent to 46 percent.

But a poll done at the end of July 2006 for Democrat Tom Hayhurst in Indiana’s 3rd district had incumbent Rep. Mark Souder (R) hovering at 50 percent. The Congressman went on to win by 8 points, 54 percent to 46 percent. Similarly, an early July Cooper & Secrest poll had Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) at 50 percent and he won by a dozen points.

And a mid-September Cooper & Secrest Democratic survey in Florida’s 8th district had GOP Rep. Ric Keller ahead, 46 percent to 39 percent. He went on to win by the same 7-point margin, but with 53 percent.

So what do all these numbers mean?

Take summer polling with a grain of salt, because while it can identify vulnerable incumbents, these Members could still win re-election.