Polls on the Democratic primary are worthless; who's ahead?

Who is ahead in the Democratic primary? I think it's hard to say, and I don't think that any of the media polls that we've seen can be trusted with any degree of confidence.


1. Large margin of error.
I think the recent DMN poll only had 350 "likely" primary voters. We don't know what their screen was, but my guess is that they just asked all of their 1500 overall respondents whether they were likely to vote in the primary.

This is a very weak screen, a la the recent Chronicle poll on district 22.

2. People not paying close enough attention.
Neither Chris Bell or Bob Gammage has raised enough money to run television ads. There has been some media coverage, but it hasn't exactly been wall-to-wall. The existence of several polls showing the Democrat running in 3rd or 4th place (though I remain somewhat skeptical, because I think the Democratic line will hold a solid amount of straight-ticketers and yellow dogs).

3. Historically inaccurate.
Think back to the last few high-profile Democratic primaries: 2002 gubernatorial, 2002 Senate, and 1998 Senate. The 2002 gubernatorial was very high-profile. Tony Sanchez had been getting lots of media coverage, and spent many millions, while Dan Morales jumped into the race at the last minute (and was rumored to have done so as a legal strategy to avoid indictment. He was lated indicted and convicted). As I recall, there was no doubt that Sanchez would be the nominee.

But in the closer races, the 1996 and 2002 Senate primaries, the polls failed to predict the winner. If I recall correctly, every poll had either Ken Bensten or Ron Kirk winning the primary. It ended up that Victor Morales came edged out Kirk for first (with Bentsen a few points behind the two), though Kirk later beat Morales in the runoff.

The same was true in 1996, when first-time candidate Morales shocked folks by beating out two incumbent Congressman who raised much more money than Morales. The polls -- again this is only as I recall, but I'm pretty confident -- didn't have Morales ahead. It was a thorough surprise

4. Do they really capture the geographics of the electorate?
I'm skeptical. Given the 96 and 02 primaries, plus the nature of what areas will have high turnout, it seems that the polls for Democratic primaries tend to understate the level of Hispanic and South Texas turnout. Given the lack of a good screen on the primary numbers, I think it's probably likely that the polls do not capture who Democratic primary voters will be.

I don't think any of the polls on the Democrats' primary can be said to have much predictive power.

EDIT: There's also the fact that in the DMN poll 60% of Dem primary voters are undecided. I do believe this is reasonable.

So who is ahead?
Standard caveat, that I've written many times here: I'm not a Democrat; I don't claim to have special knowledge of their primary.

But, in a low-profile race, it seems to me that newspaper endorsements carry a special weight. So far, Chris Bell has rounded up the vast majority of newspaper endorsements and prominent Democrat officeholders. See Phillip Martin's roundup of endorsements.

Bell has also raised more money, campaigned all over the state for over a year, and been in politics more recently than Gammage.

So, all in all, one would have to assume that Bell is the likely victor. By any standard measure, he seems to be ahead.

UPDATE: To see a counter-argument, check this from RedStateDem in the comments.

Posted by Evan @ 02/22/06 11:15 PM


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There were 301 "likely" democratic voters in the poll, so it's really worse that you thought.

Low turnout primaries are won or lost on ground organization. Not only campaign volunteers directly but help from 'endorsing' organizations.

The Gammage campaign has signs going up all over the state. That's a significant indicator of actual people in an organization. The Bell campaign didn't even purchase any -- which may be recognition that they don't have 'feet on the street' to distribute them or they're revealing of plans to depend on other media -- "robocalls? radio? direct mail, TV?"

Newspaper endorsements can have in impact in a high turnout election (because there are 'casual' voters), but in the era of 'instant information' from the web, they are becoming less and less significant.

There's a discussion at BOR about just this subject with a link to The American Journalism Review on this:
What's the Point?

"Name" endorsers only count if the individual has an organization that can be committed to help, so check the distribution and 'reach' of the opposing camps endorsing organizations.

There's a big difference between the kind of campaign Gammage has run vs what Bell has run. Gammage understands what running statewide is all about. Bell is running a "Houston city council" race again.

Posted by RedStateDem @ 02/22/06 11:36 PM

RedStateDem-- I'm familiar with Jamieson's arguments summarized in the AJR. But I think it's even more complex and situation dependent than she makes it out to be.

Posted by evan @ 02/24/06 12:06 AM

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