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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Why Early Poll Numbers Should Not Get Us Emotionally Sure-Footed

Don't tell me you're convinced that the mayoral frontrunner is at this point will indeed emerge as the favorite once campaign kicks in full steam. Looking back at 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was coasting to a convincing victory, as a Quinnipiac University poll showed the mayor with a commanding 12-point lead over Bill Thompson, the Democratic challenger. A Marist College poll, released four days before the election, gave Bloomberg a 15-point advantage. But as the returns started streaming in on election night, the mayor’s lead evaporated, squeaking out at the end of the night a mere win of 4.6%.

Some blamed pollsters for hurting Thompson’s chances by limiting his coverage in the media, deterring potential supporters from getting involved in the campaign by creating the notion that Bloomberg is inevitable    “I think the history of a lot of the public polls has shown that they’re wildly inaccurate,” Thompson said in a recent interview. “The one thing that the people of New York City have learned over a period of years and in different elections is that they’re just wrong. The public polls are just incredibly wrong, and I don’t think people put a lot of faith in them any longer.” 

Interesting enough, the Thompson campaign released its own internal poll the same week that the Quinnipiac and Marist polls came out, which found its candidate lagging Bloomberg by just eight points, 46 percent to 38 percent, according City and State NY. “Unfortunately, the media and Quinnipiac and Marist were complicit in that. That made our job a lot harder, when we knew, both through the activity that was happening in the streets and our internal polls, that it was a close race,"  said Eduardo Castell, who was Thompson’s campaign manager.

 In 1989, City and State also points to, David Dinkins had a 14-point lead over Rudolph Giuliani that dwindled to just two points in the actual voting. In 2001, only one out of six pollsters had Bloomberg beating Mark Green. In 2005, the final polls had Bloomberg up by 34 to 38 points—twice his actual 19-point margin of victory.

Pollsters, however, defend their numbers, pointing to the low enthusiasm for a candidate that seemed to have a comfortable lead regardless. Micheline Blum, the director of Baruch College Survey Research, argued that in 2009, Bloomberg's supporters were less than thrilled about voting for him. Democrats were tired of voting for someone on another ballot line, and voters in both parties were disillusioned by his decision to overturn term limits. “When someone’s way ahead like that at the end, their supporters, even though they think they’re going to vote for them and normally vote, at the very last minute they think, ‘He doesn’t need my vote, he’s going to win anyway,’ ” Blum said. “They won’t kill themselves to get there. On the other hand, the underdog’s supporters don’t want him to be humiliated and wiped out, and they want to make a statement, so they’re a little more motivated in those situations where you’re seeing someone 20 points ahead.” 

Thee only indication that might show some sort of comparison to this year's race is the mayoral race in 2001 when Bloomberg came-from-behind while polls other than SurveyUSA were showing him trailing Green. Jay Leve, the CEO of SurveyUSA, said that most polls that year had Mark Green cruising to victory, the conventional wisdom being that the Democratic nominee would win easily in New York City. “We were very, very fearful of those numbers,” Leve said. “We were so far out on a limb saying that Green would lose, and that Bloomberg, this comparatively unknown businessman, would win, we didn’t sleep that night. And then the next day Bloomberg won by three points.” 

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