A Week Later, Pollster Says: 'I Was Drinking That Republican Kool-Aid'

Nov 14, 2012

If voters were surprised to watch TV networks call the election for President Obama over Republican Mitt Romney minutes after polls closed in California last week, perhaps it was because of earlier statements like these:

--"Romney has pretty much nailed down Florida."

--"I think in places like North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, we've already painted those red, we're not polling any of those states again."

--"Minnesota is very much a battleground state due to the low minority population of the state and President Obama's problems with white voters. Romney has a good chance to pull off one of the biggest upsets of the election cycle in this state."

Those predictions came from Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research in remarks to his Florida newspaper clients; David Paleologos, a pollster from Suffolk University, speaking to Fox News; and Glen Bolger, a pollster at Public Opinion Strategies, writing a memo for the Republican-affiliated firm NMB Research.

Coker's poll showed Romney ahead in Florida by 6 percentage points on Nov. 2, four days before the election. Florida went for Obama by a single percentage point.

Paleologos made his comments during an Oct. 9 appearance on Bill O'Reilly's TV show. Obama went on to win Virginia as well as Florida, and only lost North Carolina by 2 percentage points.

And Bolger's memo was released to the media by the conservative American Future Fund on Nov. 4, just two days before Obama won Minnesota by 8 percentage points.

Many Republicans over the final weekend, particularly those appearing on conservative media, were predicting not just a Romney victory but a substantial Romney victory, with upwards of 300 electoral votes. Much of that optimism seemed based on these and similar polls in both the presidential and Senate contests.

Mason-Dixon, for example, released late polls showing Senate GOP leads in both Montana and North Dakota. It showed Missouri Republican Todd Akin — notorious for his comment that female bodies had the ability to prevent pregnancy in cases of "legitimate" rape — trailing incumbent Claire McCaskill by just 2 percentage points. Democrats won in all three Senate races; McCaskill won by 15 percentage points.

"To say that I'm unhappy would be an understatement," said Harry Wilson, head of the polling center at Virginia's Roanoke College, which projected 5-point Virginia wins for both Romney and GOP Senate candidate George Allen on Oct. 31. Romney lost the state by 3 percentage points, and Allen lost by 5. "I was drinking that Republican Kool-Aid," Wilson said.

Wilson and other pollsters cited the same miscalculation: an assumption that the electorate that showed up Nov. 6 would be older, whiter and more Republican than the one that actually turned out. Obama's victory in 2008, juiced by higher-than-normal turnout by young voters and minorities, was seen as an aberration, unlikely to be repeated in a struggling economy.

"It was a defensible, logical decision — that was wrong," Wilson said.

Paleologos said his decision to stop polling Florida, Virginia and North Carolina was based on limited resources and a desire to poll Colorado and Ohio, but also on "the incumbency rule," a long-accepted premise that if an incumbent cannot rise above 47 percent or so in head-to-head polling, he is unlikely to win.

"What I've learned is that there's a new norm," he said. "The incumbency rule does not hold, at least in Florida and Virginia."

Scott Rasmussen is a Republican favorite, a prolific pollster who appeared frequently on Fox News with upbeat assessments of Romney's chances. His late polls showed Romney ahead in Virginia, Colorado and Iowa, and tied in Wisconsin and Ohio. Obama won all five states.

On his firm's website, Rasmussen offered this explanation last week: "We underestimated the minority share of the electorate. In 2008, 26 percent of voters were nonwhite. We expected that to remain relatively constant. However, in 2012, 28 percent of voters were nonwhite. That was exactly the share projected by the Obama campaign."

Bolger, meanwhile, offered a more blunt assessment on Public Opinion Strategies' website. Concluding "that there are too many Democrats" and a "birth dearth among white voters," Bolger echoed what's become a common view among Republicans looking at demographic shifts that will continue to increase the share of blacks and Latinos in the voting public: "Unless we are a party that is seriously competitive with Latino voters, we might never win another presidential election again."

S.V. Dáte is congressional editor on NPR's Washington Desk.

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