Las Vegas Sun

February 1, 2015

Currently: 47° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

Election polls under scrutiny after missing mark

Newspaper’s last polls gave edge to Sharron Angle, who lost, and Joe Heck, who barely won

Click to enlarge photo

Jeff Dougherty votes Tuesday at the Paseo Verde Library in Henderson.

Reader poll

Are you happy with Tuesday's election results?

View results

The Las Vegas Review-Journal’s final polls in the two most closely watched Nevada races wound up having about as much predictive power as the Old Farmer’s Almanac in forecasting the winter snowfall.

One of its polls, published Oct. 29, showed Republican Sharron Angle beating Sen. Harry Reid 49-44. Four days later, Reid wound up winning 50-45.

Another poll, published on Halloween, had Republican Joe Heck beating Rep. Dina Titus 53-43. Heck won by less than 1 percentage point.

Both polls drove news coverage in Nevada and nationally, framing the political narrative as one in which Republicans had both races firmly in hand in the final days.

In fairness, other end-of-the-race polls, including those conducted by CNN and Rasmussen, showed similar results in the Reid-Angle race.

In the Titus-Heck contest, on the other hand, the R-J poll was viewed with skepticism by both campaigns and analysts of all stripes.

This isn’t the first time the R-J, which uses Washington-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, has published polls that ran far afield of Election Day results. And, the results always seem to skew Republican.

In 2008, the R-J’s final poll had Barack Obama beating John McCain in Nevada by 4 percentage points. Obama won by 12.5. A late poll in 2004 had President George W. Bush beating Sen. John Kerry by 10. Bush won by 3.

The R-J and its pollster were criticized in October 2008 when it polled in two of Nevada’s congressional races, using fewer than 300 respondents in each race. A polling expert with Pew Research Center said he had never seen published polls with such small sample sizes. Polls with fewer respondents are cheaper to conduct, but also mean a greater margin of error.

These polls can matter because, as one Democratic operative complained, they can have the effect of self-fulfilling prophecy, depressing campaign donors and volunteers and infusing Democratic voters with apathy.

A call to Mason-Dixon was not returned.

Pollsters note that laymen often misunderstand the concept of “margin of error.” For instance, in the Reid race, the margin of error — determined by an equation related to the number of respondents — was plus or minus 4 percentage points. In other words, Reid could have been as high as 48 and Angle as low as 45. But Reid scored 50 percent of the vote.

Pollsters also note that their work, even the polls on the last weekend before Election Day, are not intended to be predictors, but, rather, “snapshots in time” because public opinion can change on a dime.

Sherman Frederick, publisher of the R-J, said he was dissatisfied with the result.

“We pay for the poll, and we expect accuracy,” Frederick said. “We obviously didn’t get the kind of accuracy we expected, and we’re going to have to ask some questions about where the breakdown occurred.”

He has no plans to fire Mason-Dixon, he said.

R-J critics think they know exactly where the breakdown occurred: Its pollster, relying on old-fashioned random dialing to land lines, doesn’t account for voters who only have cell phones, and undercounts Hispanic voters who may be reluctant to participate in surveys. Both groups are heavily Democratic.

“They’re not drawing a population that looks like the electorate,” said Dave Damore, a UNLV political scientist who studies public opinion data.

Pamela Gallion, director of UNLV’s Cannon Survey Center, said, “During the (election) cycle, I was reading the paper and the polls and came in and said to the staff, ‘I wish we had the money because I know we would get different results.’ ”

Gallion cited a recent report from Pew Research Center showing that a quarter of all Americans can be reached only by cell phone. They tend to be younger, a demographic dominated by Democrats. Pew estimated that the land line bias gave Republicans 4 to 6 percentage points in polls.

Gallion said a random land line phone survey will yield 9 to 14 percent Spanish speakers willing to complete a survey. But in 2008, they made up 15 percent of the electorate, and this year perhaps higher.

The Cannon Survey Center now spends the extra money required to reach cell-only and Hispanic respondents, a process that is costly and time-consuming.

Frederick said penny-pinching is not to be blamed; the paper spent lots of money on polls this cycle, he said, a fact not lost on the paper’s readers, who got used to seeing frequent polls. In the Senate and governor races, for instance, the newspaper published results of eight polls from July 16 through Oct. 29, twice as many R-J polls of major races as in 2008 when Democrats were faring better.

The publisher said he was open to the possibility that cell-only and demographic flaws had skewed the paper’s polls and need fixing.

“Maybe Nevada is changing,” Frederick said. Indeed, once a reliably Republican state, Nevada is home to 60,000 more Democrats than Republicans, and its school population has more minorities every year.

Frederick denied bias in the polls. “Contrary to the opinion of our enemies, we don’t try to juice these polls,” he said.

The paper seeks to provide independent polling to its readers so they don’t have to rely on self-interested campaign polls that are spun out to favored media outlets, he said.

“We try really hard to provide information that is independent and takes the ability to drive the narrative away from the campaigns and instead puts it in the hands of journalism,” Frederick said.

For Democratic operatives, this kind of talk is maddening.

R-J polls do drive the narrative, they say, and always to the benefit of Republicans. (The paper’s editorial page is one of the most right-leaning in the country, often compared to the Washington Times, or a poor man’s Wall Street Journal.)

One operative suggested that a bad R-J poll can affect a campaign the way a holding penalty can kill the momentum of a football team in the middle of a good drive. Exacerbating the situation: The poll results not only top the newspaper’s news of the day but are usually repeated by credulous TV news.

This is how that self-fulfilling prophecy can kick in, as the campaign then has to deal with at least one bad news cycle.

Republican operatives snicker with some glee at the R-J polls, which can provide a lift by energizing donors and volunteers.

As for the polls’ accuracy, however, one Republican operative was blunt. Campaigns pay good money for good data. As for Mason-Dixon polling, he said: “I wouldn’t pay for them.”

Some polling is more accurate than others. The Nevada Retail Association in September hired Republican pollster Glen Bolger; he found Reid leading by 5 percentage points, the eventual margin of victory.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy

Previous Discussion: 28 comments so far…

Comments are moderated by Las Vegas Sun editors. Our goal is not to limit the discussion, but rather to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and contain no abusive language. Comments that are off-topic, vulgar, profane or include personal attacks will be removed. Full comments policy. Additionally, we now display comments from trusted commenters by default. Those wishing to become a trusted commenter need to verify their identity or sign in with Facebook Connect to tie their Facebook account to their Las Vegas Sun account. For more on this change, read our story about how it works and why we did it.

Only trusted comments are displayed on this page. Untrusted comments have expired from this story.

  1. If you were a Black person and someone called from "Mason-Dixon" would you hang up? Why don't they call it the "Lester Maddox Poll,"

    People like Rasmussen skew their polls deliberately because the want to go on "Hannity," and other nutty shows. If they give polls that are unfavorable to conservatives, Hannity would complain. Plus it builds momentum. The FTC should investigate the pollsters.

    Sherm was defending his stupid polls even though I pointed out the inaccuracies in the McCain Obama race.

  2. The people in our group had Harry Reid winning by 4 to 6 points all along. We did not believe the polls being put forth by outside agencies. We continually discounted the polls on the cable networks and local stations.

    Polls should not be placed out front as being the "fact" such as we have seen during this midterm election. People who do not do their research, or do not have the means or the time, will eventually consider the polls to be 100% truth. Which the poll are not 100% truth, in fact the Polls are grossly inaccurate and misleading to people during elections. Networks and news organizations should be require to post details of the polls they present to the public such as, the number of people polled, the method of the poll, the questions that were asked. When I say the "method" I mean did the pollsters call the person being polled directly, or was the information obtain through an automatic call. I have received many emails from pollsters asking for information, through the internet.

    Responsbile news organizations should not blast poll numbers on the screen without qualifying the poll numbers. The public is entitled to know who the poll is from, how the information was obtained, how many people participated in the poll, the date of the poll and the questions asked.

  3. "Journalistic Ethics"...
    Always OXYMORONIC at the RJ.

  4. polls don't lie but pollsters lie

  5. After this many failures it proves that this Newspaper is "Opinion Journalism" i.e. Fox News and not a legitimate investigative newspaper capable of dispensing the truth.

  6. Patrick there isn't a story here, not the way you framed it (or framed by your editors). This story is an RJ bashing article when you clearly note, in one small paragraph, that two other MAJOR national polls showed similar results.

  7. "Sherman Frederick, publisher of the R-J, said he was dissatisfied with the result.

    "We pay for the poll, and we expect accuracy," Frederick said. "We obviously didn't get the kind of accuracy we expected, and we're going to have to ask some questions about where the breakdown occurred."

    He has no plans to fire Mason-Dixon, he said."

    This made me laugh, Sherm wants accuracy????? Since when? He only wants spin, he paid for spin and he got spin.

  8. First, the Old Farmer's Almanac was much more accurate than R-J polls.

    Second, I had the "honor" of being polled by the R-J two years ago, and after that experience began asking people if they had been polled and had the same situation. They had. I was asked then whether I would vote for A or B. I said A. Each ensuing question told me a bigger lie about the candidate I backed, then asked if that changed my mind. That is called a push-poll. I say that not as an enemy of the R-J, but as a believer in honesty, right or wrong.

  9. R-J bashing? Give me a break.

    The poll problem was obvious to outside observers.

    Of note:

    "Second, counter to all of the public polls, the internal Reid numbers for the past three weeks show that Reid has actually had a lead ranging from 4 to 8 points (and last week, the National Republican Senate Campaign Committee had a similar internal poll showing Reid six points up). The campaign's rolling-track numbers from last Friday also showed Senator Reid with a six-point lead."

    The paragraph following that one gives a good look at methodologies... and the methodology that actually worked.

    Obviously, the Reid campaign's polling got it right. It's perfectly reasonable to ask why the R-J didn't follow similar polling procedures, given the inherent differences with Nevada.

  10. Sherm got a poll of the integrity he was looking for. Sherm wants to take Reid down --- but at this pace Father Time stands a better chance than Sherm does.

    Sherm thinks he paid good money for his polls --- but he didn't. He bought the poll of his dreams on a budget.

    Maybe Sherm / the RJ could hire some respectable pollsters after that Righthaven money starts rolling in, but he won't.

    Remember --- the RJ is a straight republican ticket rag ---- they have endorsed Ensign --- look at what he's into. They endorsed Gibbons --- and look at what happened there.

    summary: the RJ is a right wing rag which is led be a very unscrupulous publisher. do we expect anything other than what happened? why?

    The big question is will channel 8 dump their affiliation with the RJ after this fiasco?

    And to think that Sherm was outright mocking Ralston when Ralston dared call shenanigans on the RJ polls --- Ralston more than proved his worth, both in print for the Pulitzer winning Las Vegas Sun and on national TV.

    The funny part? Sherm whores himself out and gets _nothing_ in return. Now that's funny.

  11. what Las Vegas needs is to support the Las Vegas Sun so that they can deliver their newspaper separately.
    I have found that the Review Journal is so biased that I reacted in disgust by canceling my subscription.
    If enough people would do that they would become more objective and stop spouting a right wing agenda

  12. How come these polls don't count the people that answer the phone but either hang up or tell them that they don't participate in polls or they believe in the secret ballot those should be counted as well but there not. For example they can say 400 people were contacted and 50 vote for "A" and 50 vote for "B" and 50 vote "Undecided" then there needs to be the fourth group the 250 who vote a secret ballot and will not give the information.
    Also these questions are designed for one way. For example they may ask Do you believe in god? and you say yes then they may go on and say Sharron believes in god so you agree with her? and you may answer yes and then they go on to say what if I told you the democrats don't like god would you congregate with them? And your answer would be no. So what happened here was they were able to lead you into a direction they wanted for there out come which boils down to it the poll being.
    "perfectly engineered for the out come that they received"

  13. Mr. Sandoval,

    You don't seem to understand this article or my point.

    1) RJ AND several other polls got it wrong.
    2) The theme of this article is the RJ got it wrong
    3) Other incorrect polls are treated as a side note.

    This is an RJ bashing article.

    It would be different if the article covered the polls equally.

    Furthermore, the side picture stating "Review-Journal Polls Off base" clearly shows that 8 of the 12 candidates were within the margin of error. This makes the picture slightly misleading - it suggests they got them all wrong.

  14. "You don't seem to understand this article or my point."

    You don't have a point, Patrick. You have a whiny vendetta against a newspaper which is CORRECTLY pointing out that the R-J published misleading and incorrect polls, and has a history of doing so, which dominates the narrative here because the R-J is Nevada's largest newspaper. It seems you don't actually understand the article.

    Furthermore, this article calls out Mason-Dixon in particular because that's the polling company used by the largest newspaper in Nevada. Both the Presidential race in 2008 and this most recent Senate race had the win outside the margin of error.

    Even Sherman Frederick himself is critical of the R-J's tepid oversight over their polling partner of choice.

    The article then goes on to explore the errors in methodology used. One would think the R-J would evaluate the 2008 results for the Presidential race here in Nevada, as well as the changing demographics that even Sherm mentions in this very same article, and ask Mason-Dixon why they were wrong. Instead, the R-J simply paid them to keep doing the same old thing, leading to a narrative in the state that did not match reality.

    You seem to imply that the R-J doesn't deserve criticism for this. Who does?

  15. they are just now figuring this out with young people and cell phones? I haven't had a land line in 8 years.

  16. My bad, Mason-Dixon was within MOE in the Senate race, they just were at the other extreme of what they were predicting. I'm not sure that's better, though.

  17. Patrick R Gibbons - go read the RJ

  18. Mr. Sandoval,

    It is very clear that the RJ poll was incorrect. So were at least 3 others. The Las Vegas Sun singled at the RJ as the point of the story for personal, not news related reasons.

    Additionally, as I pointed out, 8 of the 12 candidate poll numbers were within the margin of error, despite the tagline that the RJ polls are off base. This is a misleading part of the Sun's own narrative.

    Now maybe the Las Vegas Review-Journal could do a story on how the Las Vegas Sun mangled the budget shortfall story at every turn - calling it a $3 billion shortfall out of a $6.5 billion budget.

    Errors happen, but hey if the RJ is pushing a political objective then so is the Las Vegas Sun.

  19. "The Las Vegas Sun singled at the RJ as the point of the story for personal, not news related reasons."

    Again, Patrick, the article states, several times, how influential the R-J's polling is in driving the narrative in Nevada. You haven't disputed that.

    In fact, you've taken time out of your busy day to try to influence public opinion by writing in the R-J, so I assume you agree with the sentiment. Let's not forget, as well, how often the R-J relies on your employer to reinforce their political objectives.

    You still don't seem to understand the actual angle of the article, which is about how bad polling influences the narrative... the narrative constantly reported by the R-J. The R-J pays for bad polling which reinforces the narrative they wish to promote, then doesn't hold the polling company accountable.

    As for you budget shortfall, again, let me remind you that the state's republican budget director, Andrew Clinger, was the first person to note the $3 billion shortfall. So has republican Heidi Gansert, the future Chief of Staff to republican governor Brian Sandoval.

    Seems to me the ONLY group I've found disputing that figure is, surprise surprise... NPRI... your employer.

  20. I have had many pollsters call me during elections, but this time was different. One of the few calls I received they said they were doing a poll and asked if I felt the country was going in the right direction. A few leading questions later they asked if I was voting for Ms. Angle. when I said no, they hung up and have never called back.

    If I was the only one that happened to I'm sure that wouldn't skew the results much. But then if it happened to me, I'm sure it happened to others.

    Maybe it wasn't a real poll and they were just trying to hit me up for money. They just didn't seem to like my answers. I thought it was odd for a reputable polling service.

  21. Mark Twain wasn't the first to say it, but he was the best...

    "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

  22. Janmara1
    "what Las Vegas needs is to support the Las Vegas Sun so that they can deliver their newspaper separately.
    I have found that the Review Journal is so biased that I reacted in disgust by canceling my subscription.
    If enough people would do that they would become more objective and stop spouting a right wing agenda"

    I did the same thing, after moving here in 2008 I wanted to get the local flavor with the local paper. After reading the LVRJ though, I realized they were cheerleading for gop and t-gaggers alike, and anti-Obama / Reid / Pelosi, so I canceled my subscription. I hate that the Sun comes inside the LVRJ with their t-gagger gop cheerleading squad.

    The Las Vegas Sun wins awards, the lvrj tries to suck up to the national t-gaggers with the poll showing Sharron Angle beating Sen. Harry Reid 49-44. The results speak for themselves, sorry t-gaggers and gop lovers who read the lvrj polls and believed that nonsense. Democrats have people who vote for them who aren't old white and sit by their landline phone all day waiting to complain about government.

  23. Kevin, I think you just like to argue. The Las Vegas Sun could have written an honest, informative story without driving an anti-RJ agenda. They lead with the RJ spin as part of their anti-RJ narrative. You know this.

    The $3 billion shortfall is questionable for several reasons. First, some of the roll up costs aren't fully disclosed. They claim they need more money without a full explanation of how the money will be used. Second the state government manipulated the public with the budget numbers.

    We cut the general fund and used ARRA stimulus funds to back fill the cuts. Then when talking about how big the budget cuts have been, the state agencies ignore the ARRA funds as if they aren't even there (although spent toward general fund purposes the money was technically outside the general fund).

    So while the Las Vegas Sun editorial board wailed about cutting to the bone, in reality, the state was spending pretty much about the same amount of money.

    Then when its time to build a budget, state agencies include the ARRA funds and complain the money won't be there next year.

    In other words, they're having their cake and eating it too.

    Finally, as I've stated for the last two years, the General Fund is only a portion of the state's overall spending.

    All that said, the Las Vegas Sun still had the worst coverage of Nevada's budget shortfall in the entire state. Even if we treat the backward baseline budgeting process as legit (its not) the Las Vegas Sun got the story backward. They reported a $3 billion shortfall in a $6.5 billion budget. They even went so far as to suggest that the shortfall was 50 percent of the budget - at best this is poor math.

    As I predicted the claimed budget shortfall was $3 billion out of an $8 billion budget. You can go back and check my posts and see that I've nailed the last 2 budgets and predicted the agency request. Geoff did the same.

  24. PS, I can see how the Sun would be duped...

    The actual spending figures aren't published in an easily available easy to read format, baseline budgeting is complete silliness, various budget accounts confuse lots of people, newspapers have all focused on the general fund for no particular reason other than that how they've always done it (yes an actual reporter actually told me this) and the budget office hasn't done a great job explaining the situation.

    Then again, maybe the Sun was willfully duped...

  25. "The Las Vegas Sun could have written an honest, informative story without driving an anti-RJ agenda. They lead with the RJ spin as part of their anti-RJ narrative."

    you ever see Sherm's bog? good lord almighty; Mr. Sun could go take a dump on Sherm's forehead and still owe him a 1,000 more.

    Not that anyone would care that anyone would take a dump on Sherm's head. I'm just sayin'.

    Or do you protest when Sherm trumps up faux charges against the Sun and then try to stop him when he carries on week after week after week on nothing? probably not considering that you're over here carrying Sherm's water..... ESPECIALLY WHEN Sherm's AS WRONG AS WRONG CAN BE.


  26. Tom, I haven't read Sherm's blog. What has he said and why is it wrong?

  27. Polling can't really be trusted these days. For scientific polling they have to rely on landlines and with people ditching that old fashioned communication style in favor of cell phones, its a major problem for pollsters.

  28. Hi Patty Gibbons,
    Why don't you go read Shermy's blog for your self and draw your next blind conclusions?