If voters want a sense of where things stand in Delaware’s 2010 races, they won’t get much help from polls. Delaware has not seen much polling before the September 14 primary–and the campaigns in Delaware’s biggest race, for the U.S. Senate seat previously held by Vice President Joe Biden, say that’s just fine with them.
Christy Gleason, campaign manager for Democratic Senate candidate Chris Coons, says while the public polling that has been done shows her candidate making progress, she is not overly interested in it.
“There usually is more attention on the press side than the campaign side. For us, what we do today and tomorrow will not change because someone does or does not release a poll. We have our strategy,” said Gleason.
Congressman Mike Castle, who after nine terms in the U.S. House is bidding for a spot in the Senate, is also uncertain if more polls would benefit anyone, particularly the campaigns. “I think if there was a lot more public polling everyone would be a little skeptical of that kind of polling in a state like Delaware,” said Congressman Castle “I imagine both Democrats and Republicans watch more carefully their own polling and have a lot more confidence in it.”
Public polling to date has centered mainly on the Senate race, where Congressman Castle faces a primary challenge from Christine O’Donnell, while Coons, currently New Castle County Executive, awaits the winner in November. Rasmussen Reports is responsible for the majority of polling on that race, focusing on potential general election match-ups in six surveys since January. The company’s president, Scott Rasmussen says Delaware simply has not warranted more polling than that.
“The biggest reason is that in a cycle like this there are an awful lot of competitive races. At the moment, the Delaware feature race, the Senate race, is seen as not quite as competitive and that is the primary reason,” said Rasmussen.
The latest Rasmussen poll, released September 7, showed Congressman Castle leading Coons by 11 percentage points, while Coons leads O’Donnell by 11. Those numbers are virtually identical to the Rasmussen poll of the race in early August. Public Policy Polling also examined Delaware’s Senate race in early August and found Castle ahead of Coons by 13, and Coons ahead of O’Donnell by 7. In both polls, the margin of error was about between 3 and 5 percent and undecideds were between 8 and 19 percent, depending on the match-up.
That doesn’t diminish Rasmussen’s confidence that his numbers reflect where things stand.
“The reason is very simple. When you are talking about a general election, this November, we have a pretty good idea who is going to show up and vote,” he said. “It is a very wide participation, and the efforts of the campaigns to get their supporters out have less of an impact.”
Primaries are a different story. Rasmussen admits they can be difficult to poll. He points to the recent, little-polled Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Alaska, where Tea Party affiliated Joe Miller defeated incumbent Republican senator Lisa Murkowski.
“Primaries have very low turnout historically. When you have a low turnout, a team that is motivated and enthusiastic and has a good get-out-the-vote effort can skew the poll results dramatically,” said Rasmussen.
The Alaska Republican primary was “semi-open”, which means independents not registered Republican could participate.
For the Christine O’Donnell campaign, that uncertainty offers hope. O’Donnell’s campaign believes it can duplicate Miller’s result in Alaska. “I think it’s entirely possible to see that kind of an upset here in Delaware,” said Jason McGuire, senior consultant to the O’Donnell campaign.
Jan van Lohuizen, president of Texas-based Voter/Consumer Research, Inc., which handles the Castle campaign’s internal polling agrees polling for primaries can be dicey, but believes Delaware is less susceptible to a surprise.
“Delaware is actually a little bit easier than in many other states because you have a closed primary where only Republicans can vote in that primary as opposed to state like Texas where you don’t even know which primary they are going to vote in because they don’t have to decide until the day of the election which ballot they are going to pick,” said van Lohuizen.
McGuire concedes that polling is significant because solid poll numbers give “credibility, viability” to a candidate, but adds those numbers, public or internal, are not the final word. He also looks to what you get from meeting voters in person.
“We are focused on the personal poll,” said McGuire. “That’s where we are getting a great response from people across all party lines that have had enough of the incumbent status quo.”
Christy Gleason, Chris Coons’ campaign manager, says that in a small state like Delaware the value of voter interaction is more important than poll results.
“We have hundreds of opportunities everyday to hear directly from a voter about what they care about, what they think is going on, what their priorities are, what their concerns are,” she said. “That’s as valuable as anything else. It’s too easy in this business to get caught up on polls, internal and external, and have those make you make changes that aren’t in the best interest.”
Congressman Castle says his campaign uses that personal contact to keep a finger on the pulse of voters with what he calls “supermarket polls.”
“We go to supermarkets… and ask people to fill out ballots and get some sense of how we’re doing. Its not the most accurate, as pollsters will tell you, but I think directionally it can tell you how things are going,” he said.
But for strategy, Castle’s campaign looks to its formal internal polling. “What the public polling does is almost purely focused on where is the race right now as opposed to how do you implement recommendations on how to conduct the campaign,” said van Louizen. “What we do is that plus a whole lot more, like why do you feel the way you do and how would you react if we provided you with more information about the candidates.”
As an internal polling specialist, van Louizen is skeptical of public polling, calling their results “not very accurate” and “erractic,” which he says can cause problems for campaigns.
“Someone comes up with a public poll that says the race is here when you think it is in a very different place and then everyone picks that up, the media, the donors and then you spend half your time explaining why the two are different and it affects fundraising,” said van Louizen.
Rasmussen disagrees with that characterization. “In terms of a race in general, what we find is, and this shouldn’t be surprising, most campaigns have a pretty good sense of where the race is standing. Most of the public polling doesn’t challenge that notion,” said Rasmussen. “They may be a few points different here or there, so it doesn’t really have an impact on the campaigns its just letting the public know the same sort of information the insiders have.”
But even the insiders are cautious with any polling data, because how quickly things can change.
“A poll is a snapshot in time,” said Gleason. “That’s all it is.”
“I think polls are sort of instantaneous,” said Castle. “You take a poll and the next day it’s in the news and the next day things have changed again.”