It remains a truism that the only vote that really counts is on Election Day. But a look at the findings by pollsters who worked New Mexico this year shows that most of them, at least those not paid by the candidates, weren’t far off from the actual results.
One homegrown polling company got a positive mention by The New York Times’ poll-analysis wizard Nate Silver.
In a Nov. 10 blog post, Silver listed Albuquerque’s Research & Polling Inc., which conducted polls for The Albuquerque Journal, in his top-10 list of polling companies that conducted at least one poll of likely voters in the last three weeks of the campaign. This was based on the company’s final poll in the presidential contest conducted between Oct. 23 and 25.
“Our last poll came close,” Brian Sanderoff, the company’s president, said in an interview this week. In the presidential race, incumbent Democrat Barack Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney by 9.9 percentage points. Sanderoff had Obama with a 9 percentage point lead.
“We also did well in other races,” he said. “People said we had to be way off when we had Michelle Lujan Grisham up by 15 percentage points [in the 1st Congressional District] race. She ended up winning by 18 points.” Sanderoff nailed the vote approving Albuquerque’s minimum-wage law. His last poll showed that measure winning by 32 percentage points, which indeed was the margin on Election Day.
Sanderoff also was correct about Democrat Martin Heinrich having a healthy lead over Republican Heather Wilson in the U.S. Senate race to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Bingaman. But, as was the case with most polls in the Senate contest, the race turned out to be closer than many thought it would be.
Sanderoff’s final poll showed Heinrich winning by an 8 percentage point margin, 50 percent to 42 percent. Heinrich actually won by 5.6 percentage points. Last-minute advertising campaigns by sympathetic outside groups might have been effective in winning some undecided voters for Wilson.
Research & Polling’s numbers were not far off the polling results of out-of-state companies that polled here. However, as the election got closer, there was less and less activity by national companies in New Mexico.
Sanderoff said that’s because it became obvious that New Mexico — which went to Obama by a 15 percentage point margin in 2008 —no longer was a swing state. Since Romney secured the GOP nomination in the spring, polls in New Mexico showed the president in a commanding lead.
“National polls focus on the battleground states,” Sanderoff said. Polling costs money, he pointed out, so polling firms will concentrate on consequential races.
Likewise, the U.S. Senate contest between Heinrich and Wilson — which many initially believed would be close — never quite jelled into a competitive contest. By mid-October, the Real Clear Politics website, which compiles poll results, had all but called the race for Heinrich. “Wilson is still fighting, but she’s increasingly the only person waging this battle,” the website said. “The state is simply moving out of Republicans’ reach lately.”
The companies that polled New Mexico most regularly were Public Policy Polling and Rasmussen Reports. PPP did one poll here in late October, but that survey was commissioned by the League of Conservation Voters, which supported Heinrich. Rasmussen’s’ final poll of New Mexico voters in 2012 was conducted Oct. 8.
Despite the charge that Rasmussen’s numbers normally skew toward Republican candidates — Silver wrote that the company’s 2012 results showed a 4.5 percentage point bias for Romney in its national polls — in New Mexico, Rasmussen showed better numbers for Obama and Heinrich than did PPP, a Democrat-run North Carolina company.
Both companies showed Obama and Heinrich to have comfortable leads in the state. PPP’s final poll showed Obama beating Romney by 9 percentage points, while Rasmussen showed the president winning by 11 percentage points.
In the Senate race, PPP’s final poll showed Heinrich ahead by 10 percentage points. Rasmussen’s last poll here had Heinrich winning by 13 percentage points — which is more than twice the margin he ended up with in election results a month later.
For obvious reasons, the least reliable polls in any election are the internal polls paid for by the candidates. Heinrich’s final internal poll released to the public, conducted in late October, showed him up by 10 percentage points, which turned out to be optimistic, but not far off from the margins shown by other pollsters.
But throughout the general election season, Wilson’s campaign released internal polls, conducted by the Republican Public Opinion Strategies firm, that showed Wilson doing much better than independent polls indicated.
In late October, the campaign released a POS poll that showed Wilson actually leading Heinrich by one percentage point. In the weekend before the election, the final POS poll showed both candidates with 46 percent.
Sanderoff said that even though few political observers in the state took those polls seriously, they might have convinced the independent expenditure groups — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads — to run their last-minute TV spots for Wilson.
There was one other company that polled New Mexicans shortly before the election. This was YouGov, a company that started in England that uses an Internet-based method for polling.
In its New Mexico poll, conducted between Oct. 31 and Nov. 3, the results underestimated Obama’s margin, but it was the most accurate of all polls in the Senate race. YouGov showed Obama leading Romney by 6 percentage points, while Heinrich was ahead of Wilson by 7 — just one percentage point more than the actual election result.
Instead of calling people on the phone, the method used by traditional polling firms, YouGov surveys an invited panel of people who volunteer over the Internet. The company weights those responses to match certain demographic information. Silver, in his post-election blog, said YouGov “got reasonably good results” in its national polls in the presidential race.
“Some of the most accurate firms were those that conducted their polls online,” Silver wrote.
Asked about online polls like YouGov, Sanderoff said, “Unorthodox polling techniques are frowned upon at first.” But after such techniques improve, he said, they become more accepted.
He noted that using panels on the Internet is cheaper than paying people to make phone calls. But, he said, “You have to be very careful about choosing a panel of people.” Sanderoff said he’d trust the Internet polling firms more if they could ensure the panel consisted of likely voters who voted in the previous election.
Contact Steve Terrell at email@example.com. Read his political blog at roundhouseroundup.com.