How low is Lincoln? | Arkansas Blog

Saturday, February 6, 2010

How low is Lincoln?

Posted By on Sat, Feb 6, 2010 at 7:31 AM

Since the John Brummett column raises the issue of the state of the Blanche Lincoln campaign, it's a good time for an interesting report from Paul Barton in Washington.

Barton analyzes Lincoln's low poll numbers, particularly criticism of poll results produced by firms relying on robocalling. He also finds analysts who say it is too early to write off her re-election chances. As for Brummett's point about media spending, the Lincoln campaign was unwilling to talk about a specific question on the point. It all follows:

By PAUL BARTON

WASHINGTON – Some veteran political observers say it is way too early to write off Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s re-election chances, despite recent polls suggesting she is in deep trouble.

There is also continuing controversy about some of the polling techniques that have been used in judging the incumbent Democrat’s standing with her constituents.

“I’m not ready to buy into the numbers yet,” said congressional analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “I’m skeptical she is down 15 to 18 points.”

He added that the results could be “an artifact of the polling method.”

Public Policy Polling’s recent poll suggesting Lincoln’s approval rating had slumped to 27 percent has sent shockwaves through the world of political pundits and analysts.

Tom Jensen, director of PPP, said in a telephone interview from Raleigh, N.C.,: “We’re a Democratic polling firm. It doesn’t make us happy to put this kind of information out. But we call them as we see them.”

But PPP’s poll and polls by Scott Rasmussen’s Rasmussen Reports, two of the most widely publicized sources of polling data recently, have come under fire from some quarters for their methodology, which relies on automated dialing or “robo calls.”

For instance, here is how one of the PPP questions about Lincoln was read by an automated voice to whoever picked up the phone in the residence of one of 810 registered voters in Arkansas:

“Do you approve or disapprove of Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s job performance? If you approve, press 1. If you disapprove, press 2. If you’re not sure, press 3.”

Many major media organizations refuse to cite the results of automated polls.

A National Journal column last year cited The Washington Post and The New York Times and Associated Press as among those objecting to the method. It quoted a statement from the Post saying, “There is no way to verify whether an 8-year-old is on the line pushing the buttons.”

And Del Ali of Research 2000 in a piece appearing on politicalwire.com in September seconded that complaint:

“The biggest problems with them is that you do not know if you have a voter on the telephone. The other problem is that not all of these firms who use robo calls tell you exactly what they asked in terms of the question and when they asked the question. In other words, the robo call could spend the first minute or so trashing a particular point of view or a candidate before they ask the respondent on how they would vote on an issue on a race.”

He added he prefers “live interviewers to take live respondents through a series of screeners in order to qualify or disqualify them as a likely voter. We also reveal our questions and we do not do push questions like many robo calls do. If the robo polls are not transparent in terms of whom they call, how they determine the likely voter and what they ask, then it is a junk poll in my view.” 

And On Jan. 27, Gary Langer, director of polling at ABC News, blogged: “In our ABC News polling standards we don’t regard autodialed, pre-recorded polls as valid and reliable survey research. Our concerns include noncoverage, nonresponse, lack of respondent selection, nonvalidation, opaque weights and the absence of a persuasive, independent literature evaluating the approach. Some other news shops – the few that, in my view, take coverage of public opinion seriously – share these judgments.”

But Jensen fired back in his own blog post that ABC and other major mainstream media “no longer control the polling world.” He added “Organizations like Rasmussen and PPP that are getting more and more public attention and showing themselves to be as accurate or better than traditional pollsters are a serious threat to the folks who used to have the marketplace to themselves ….”

And it was an automated Rasmussen poll first indicate the Democrats would have trouble holding onto former Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts.

In response to questions about the controversy over polling methods posed by The Arkansas Times, Scott Keeter, polling expert at the Pew Research Center in Washington, said in an e-mail that the accuracy of  robo calling or “interactive voice response” (IVR) polls “in predicting election outcomes is generally on-par with conventional interviewer phone polling. But IVR has some significant limitations as a polling method. It does not cover households with cell phones (now more than 20% of the adult population), and the length of the surveys is very limited (so they are not useful for in-depth studies).”

Steve Patterson, Lincoln’s campaign director, said he, too, wonders about the methods of some of the recent polls showing trouble for the incumbent Democrat, but added he’s not going to obsess over any polls “10 months out.”

But he conceded that the saturation media coverage of the health care debate over the last half of 2009 hurt Lincoln and that most polls, not just ones about Lincoln, reflect increasing anti-Washington sentiment. In a key development in December, Lincoln voted to prevent health-care legislation from being filibustered by Republicans, but she also emphasized she had not made a decision about whether the bill should become law and still had many concerns.

Further, Patterson said the national ruckus over health care and deficit spending has also confused voters on some key facts, such as that controversial bank bailout legislation was initiated under former President George W. Bush’s watch. “Where were the Tea Partyers then?” he asked.

But the Lincoln campaign is not going to panic. “We’re going to have sort all this out,” Patterson. “We’re launching a pretty good field plan.”

When asked when Lincoln was going to start unleashing some of the more than $7 million she’s raised, the campaign director replied: “Are you asking me to reveal our campaign strategy to a reporter?”

Hal Bass, political analyst at Ouachita Baptist University, agreed that it is far too early to write Lincoln off, despite the bellowing by conservative radio recently.

Bass said Lincoln is being negatively affected by three factors:

  • Republicans and conservatives will give her no slack in saying she is too liberal and too linked to President Obama’s agenda.
  • Liberal Democrats see her as too conservative.
  • Independent voters see her as ineffective.

“She has got to get in the game,” Bass said, adding that Lincoln is allowing others to too easily define her.

Among other things, Bass said, Lincoln needs to do even more to trumpet her new chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee and the important influence she can have on matters related to a rural state.

The Arkansas Farm Bureau reports that there are still 49,346 individual farms in Arkansas and that Arkansans who hold jobs related to agriculture or agribusiness number 268,617.

“Arkansans historically have taken great pride” in the power wielded by those who have represented them in Congress, Bass said, a reference to the era of Democratic giants such as Rep. Wilbur Mills and former Sen. William Fulbright, among others.

But Patterson countered: “I would take issue that she hasn’t defined herself.” He said her centrist, stand-up-for-Arkansas record as a two-term senator speaks for itself.

Pollster John Zogby said in a telephone interview that Lincoln and other Democratic members around the country seen to be fighting for their lives are battling “significant anxieties”  in the electorate, especially concerning the economy. For now, he said, they don’t see Washington as able to solve the nation’s problems.

Obama’s unpopularity in Arkansas also deepens her problems, analysts say. A Congressional Quarterly study released last month showed Lincoln voted with Obama 95 percent of the time in 2009.

“Her party leadership does not play well in Arkansas,” Zogby said. 

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