Some skepticism about the two recent big-Dayton-lead polls

Carleton College Political Scientist (and oft-quoted analyst of Minnesota politics) Steven Schier is skeptical about the two latest Minnesota guv race polls that showed DFLer Mark Dayton outside-the-margin-of-error leads over Repub Tom Emmer. In short, he thinks the sample for both pools has too many Democrats.

In an email, Schier writes: “In the 2006 and 2008 Minnesota exit polls of actual voters, Dems had a 4 percent lead over the GOP (39-35 and 40-36, respectively) with the rest independents.  In the Humphrey Institute and Strib recent polls, Dems had a 10 and 7 percent lead, respectively, over the GOP.”

To Schier, it is “impossible to believe” that the Minnesota electorate features a substantially larger plurality of Democrats in 2010, which is universally considered to be a year of Republican surge, than it had in 2006 and 2008, both of which were big up years for Democrats (huge Dem pickups to take control of both Houses of Congress in 2006, the election of Obama and still more Dem pickups in both Houses of Congress in 2008).

Schier also finds it unbelieveable that between late August, when the previous MPR/Humphrey poll was taken and late September, the likely partisan makeup of the likely electorate could have undergone such a dramatic change. “You can’t have an electorate that is plus Republicans 10 points one month then plus Democrats 11 poiints the next month. I believe that is grounds for skepticism. I believe the truth is somewhere in between.”

Schier is not accusing the pollsters for either the Humphrey Institute nor the Strib of any bias nor any specific methodological error. But “somehow they’re oversampling Democrats.”

Larry Jacobs, who oversaw the Humphrey poll, understands the skepticism. Jacobs himself expressed some skepticism about the Strib poll, before he had seen the final numbers for his own survey, and he knows that these findings defy the conventional wisdom that this is a Republican year, that Dems were suffering from a big enthusiasm gap and that this would be reflected in who turns out in November.

But he followed the methodology in both polls, Republicans were not complaining about the previous poll, which showed Dayton and Emmer tied (Democrats were complaining about that one), that he double and triple-checked the numbers when he saw the results, knowing that he would be criticized, but that ethically and professionally he couldn’t massage the numbers to come closer to the conventional wisdom so that his poll wouldn’t be conrtroversial. In scrutinizing the results, he concluded — and he has emphasized in his analysis of the poll — that something in the past month has lit a fire under Democrats, at least in Minnesota, and erased the enthusiasm gap, therefore pushing a bunch more Dems into the likely voter category. “There’s something going on here that is surprising,” he said. In other words, he stands behind his poll.

One thing I’ve been meaning to mention in my recent writing about polls, and this is the place to do it. The most common critidcism of a poll is that the sample included too many from one party or the other. This criticism implies that the correct partisan breakdown of the likely electorate is known before the poll and the pollster should make sure that breakdown is reflected in the survey sample. But, think about it, the partisan makeup of the likely electorate changes all the time — that’s one of the main things that causes swings from one election to another and at least tentative swings from one poll to another. A poll is designed to construct a sample that reflects the electorate according to known demographic characteristics like age, race, region, income and education level. But the partisan breakdown of the likely electorate is one of the things that the poll is supposed to discover, not something you program in in advance.

Charles Franklin of the University of Wisconsin, also one of the main guys at, put it this way for me: “As long as you’re not weighting to party ID, which is a very controversial practice within the profession, then the partisan makeup of your sample is a random variable like anything else.”

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/01/2010 - 10:43 am.

    //To Schier, it is “impossible to believe” that the Minnesota electorate features a substantially larger plurality of Democrats in 2010, which is universally considered to be a year of Republican surge, than it had in 2006 and 2008, …

    I’m sorry but it’s not a matter of “belief” it’s a matter of data. If Schier has some data to substantiate his belief that Democrats are being oversampled let’s see that data. Otherwise his complaint is not evidence driven. Frankly, it’s a bizarre complaint for anyone familiar with methodology, as the author points out you can’t claim bias unless you know what the demographic is and that it’s not being represented.

    I don’t see a Republican surge, I see a Republican schism taking place. I don’t think you can assume that will lead to electoral victory, a lot of these Tea Party candidates are imploding as the campaigns heat up. There’s no prima facia reason to doubt a liberal shift in MN after 8 years of crises at the hands of a Republican governor who never won by a true majority in the first place. The Republican “base” has never been very large, just enough to swing narrow elections.

    My advice to anyone running against Republicans has always been force them to run to their base, you take the rest of the votes. Their base isn’t big enough to win elections. Emmer and Horner are both now trying to portray themselves as more moderate. Don’t let em get away with this. Bang away on Emmer’s “value” issues and force him to either distance himself and risk alienating his base or re-affirm his intolerance and lose the moderates. Same with Horner, the guys a Republican, don’t let anyone forget it.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/01/2010 - 11:09 am.

    Paul U–
    In 2006 and 2008 the GOP was not running statewide candidates as blatantly to the right as they are this year.
    The poll results are consistent with Emmer&Co appealing mostly to their base.

  3. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/01/2010 - 11:39 am.

    The DFL party base chose the most liberal candidate in choosing Mark Dayton (John Marty aside). So you have two major party candidates that represent the parties extreme bases. With the majority of voters in the middle, “get out the vote” will be critical for both the GOP and DFL bases…

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/01/2010 - 12:36 pm.


    You keep talking about the “middle” or moderates. I remind you that several of Dayton’s proposals actually enjoy a majority of support according to several polls. For many years now Americans and Minnesotan’s have endorsed some tax increases. I think the middle may be a little more liberal you think.

  5. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 10/01/2010 - 01:03 pm.

    @Richard Schultze,

    I would put Mark Dayton in the middle of the pack, from liberal to conservative. What amazes me is the extremism the Republicans chose. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being ultra liberal and 1 being ultra conservative, I would put Emmer as a 2 (maybe a 1.5), Horner is a 4 and Dayton is a 6. I mean what makes him a liberal? He’s out shooting shotguns. He grew up rich with rich relatives talking about business. He’s mostly talking about fixing schools and creating jobs. Progressive income taxes is something both Republicans and Democrats agreed with for almost all of the 20th Century. He hasn’t publicly supported Marty’s universal health care. So if the middle is 5, Dayton is as close to the middle as Horner is.

  6. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/01/2010 - 02:50 pm.

    Mr. Dayton’s tax policy is not broad based enough. I’d be more supportive of his plan to increase taxes if it extended to all of us. It should be a shared sacrifice. Not class warfare.

    His budget that he campaigned upon came up significantly lower (nearly 1/2) than projected. A man with his means and access should have had the answer to that question before his budget was released. That major blunder does not inspire much confidence.

    Moderate or in the middle who knows? I would say that is a matter of perception.

  7. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/01/2010 - 03:21 pm.

    And Dayton was a hockey player —
    a constitutional requirement for the position.

  8. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 10/01/2010 - 05:17 pm.

    The only issue of class in the current tax code is that the rich don’t pay as much of their income, in terms of percentage, as the poor do. All Dayton really wants to do is fix that.

  9. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/01/2010 - 06:31 pm.

    Now there’s a winning slogan “Tax the Rich”, because that’s where the money is.

    “Tax the Rich” is misleading. Because it might convince the mass of non-millionaires that Minnesota can solve its budget problems by soaking the rich. And given the efficiency benefits of consumption-oriented taxes (especially those focused on negative externalities) it’s probably wise to include broad-based taxes and budget cuts as part of budget balancing process.

    Under the banner of reasonable people can disagree, one might say the argument between right and left is one of the proper degree of redistribution the government should implement in order to maximize: the reward for hard work, public goods, economic growth, basic fairness, and our unwillingness to see children starve, all of which pull in competing directions. That said….

    There’s often a functional misconception among leftward politicians and the roughly 50% of us with no federal income tax liability that the rich, or business, or CEOs and bankers, or fill in your preferred “other”, represent this infinite ocean of resources that can be taxed forever without consequence to the economy at large.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/01/2010 - 06:49 pm.

    //Mr. Dayton’s tax policy is not broad based enough. I’d be more supportive of his plan to increase taxes if it extended to all of us. It should be a shared sacrifice. Not class warfare.

    Class warfare? Dude there was time not long ago in the country when the income tax rate for the wealthiest Americans was 92%. No one was manning any barricades at the time.

    Setting that issue aside I have to say I agree about broadening the tax increases, but the top 10% have gotten 90% of the additional income over the last 15 years, they can easily afford the tax increases. I for one however wouldn’t mind going back to the 98 tax rates.

  11. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/01/2010 - 07:27 pm.

    The rich can always pay more, but what are the consequences? We have to make trade-offs between consumption and investment. We cannot do more of both.

    Good economists take the long view. It’s very short sighted to say that the rich can always pay more. Of course they can, but the long run consequence will be less investment.

    We can always burn our furniture to heat our houses, but no one should mistake that for a long-term solution or for any kind of wisdom.

  12. Submitted by Glenn Mesaros on 10/02/2010 - 07:43 am.

    This election is like making provisions for the Last Breakfast on the Titanic. Dayton has canvassed his fellow rich passengers, and they have agreed, since the galley is under water, to provide a great pancake breakfast with strawberry jam, from their private stocks, for all the poor people who will not make it into the lifeboats reserved for the rich people. Emmer says there are no provisions left, but people “can make their own” if they can find some. Horner agrees with Emmer, but says he has found a five man string orchestra which is willing to seranade all the passengers who can’t make it to the lifeboats. The Titanic sank at 2:40 AM, so nobody got any breakfast, except the sharks.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/02/2010 - 11:31 am.

    //The rich can always pay more, but what are the consequences? We have to make trade-offs between consumption and investment. We cannot do more of both.

    This is trickle down economics that has long since been debunked. What economists will really tell you that the more money you give the wealthy, the more money they will take. As disparity increases it eventually become unsustainable because it obliterates the middle class. Whenever this has occurred you see economic instability and severe recessions or depressions. This is why absolutely no general prosperity or stability has accompanied the growing income gap of the last 30 years, and in fact, we find ourselves in the midst of the biggest recession since the Great Depression. In fact, the more wealth the wealthy accumulate the more unstable and less prosperous the economy has become. This is a repeatable and predictable outcome. They called it voodoo economics for a reason.

    The idea that we’re making a trade-off between prosperity and balanced budgets when we ask the wealthy to pay more taxes is a false dichotomy born of ideological dictates, not sound economics. No one’s talking about restoring the 92% tax brackets or even the 50% tax brackets. Even if someone was, the idea that we’ll tax ourselves into a bad economy is not based on sound economic principles, it’s based on faith-based Chicago school economics that have delivered a recession no one thought was possible.

  14. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/02/2010 - 02:22 pm.

    Perhaps we are at a philosophical impasse Paul.
    And I am okay with that… Enjoy the beautiful weekend….

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