The most accurate polls in an election are those which are published just before election day. That makes common sense. Before that time, the most reliable polls are the internal polls which candidates pay dearly for from pollsters, and which are rarely published. Their purpose is to inform campaigns how they are doing and where their weaknesses are. Occasionally, campaigns reveal internal polls if the news is exceptionally good, and publication can help fundraising and media attention. This is particularly true of campaigns where the challenger is believed to be far behind and has no chance of winning.
An example of this is the just-revealed internal poll of GOP nominee and challenger Chip Cravaack who is running against one of the icons of U.S. house, the powerful 18-term Democratic incumbent Jim Oberstar in the Minnesota 8th district. According to this poll, Mr. Cravaack is only 3 points behind Mr. Oberstar (45-42), and within the margin of error. The pollster, Public Opinion Strategies, is a Republican firm, but generally respected. However, the poll only interviewed 300 voters, and the margin of error is at least 6%. (To be fair to Mr. Oberstar, I think at least one more poll with these kind of numbers will be necessary before his opponent’s challenge is convincing.)
Congressman Oberstar usually wins with about 60% of the vote, and is known to deliver lots of federal “groceries” to this conservative Democratic northern Minnesota district which has lots of union members, high unemployment and a severely diminishing population. The district is heavily Catholic and pro-life, and Oberstar has usually been a reliable pro-life vote in Congress. However, he not only voted for Obamacare (considered by the pro-life community as a pro-choice vote), he heavily promoted it. Another pro-life Democrat, Kathy Dahlkemper in Pennsylvania’s 3rd congressional district, also voted for Obamacare, and saw her initial double-digit lead evaporate. She is now several points behind her GOP challenger.
But this is far from the only “shocking” new polls signaling Democratic “safe” incumbents now in trouble. If history is a fair instructor, other incumbents who are “sure winners” will now discover they have a race on their hands. This will include not only many other members of the U.S. house, but senators as well. However, there are currently only five or six Democratic incumbent senators remaining who are usually considered “safe.” Of those, I sense that Senator
Wyden of Oregon and Senator Gillebrand of New York could be the next to receive unexpectedly bad poll news. Two-thirds of U.S. sentators are not up for re-election this year (and for that they should thank their political stars).
One of the reasons “safe” incumbents often ignore a wave election is that they have weak opponents. This is reasonable, but when the voters are as upset as they are this year, the qualifications and character of the challenger are often much less important than the powerful desire of voters to throw the incumbent out.
If incumbents such as Jim Oberstar lose this year, the magnitude of the GOP victory will be a whole level above the worst-case scenarios now being suggested.
It is less than four weeks to election day. The polls will now likely bounce like a ping-pong ball in a lottery number machine. The watchword for this election is “Caveat Incumbent!”