Kentucky Senate Bluegrass Poll: Another Interpretation

by Stuart Rothenberg September 27, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

When asked about the new Bluegrass Poll, which showed Republican Rand Paul’s lead shrinking from 15 points in an early September survey to a mere two points in a new survey, SurveyUSA pollster Jay Leve commented, “Whether that is a result of genuine traction for (Conway), second thoughts about his opponent, or a newly raised consciousness among voters who a month ago were not focused on the contest, I am not sure."

Let me suggest a different interpretation: The first poll was way off. The race hasn’t closed all that much.

I’ve written often about the number of polls out there that don’t reflect reality, but it’s worth noting that news organizations that commission surveys never acknowledge that their data could be far from an accurate reflection of public opinion. That’s not surprising, of course, since doing so would discredit their own work.

But the uncertain nature of polling is one reason why my newsletter will never give its name to a survey. I don’t want to be in the position of having to defend data that seems intuitively ridiculous.

I suppose some people will believe that Paul held a 55 percent to 40 percent lead three weeks ago and that the race has closed to a razor-thin 49 percent to 47 percent now. But most veteran political observers will regard that as silly. Opinion doesn’t move that dramatically, especially since both Paul and Conway have been Senate nominees for months.

I know Jay Leve and actually have a favorable opinion of him.

When Jay was conducting polling for Roll Call, I telephoned him about two SurveyUSA polls in New Mexico conducted almost coincidentally, one for Roll Call and one for a New Mexico newspaper.

I expected Jay to duck my call, since the two polls showed diametrically different results. He didn’t, and to his credit, he looked for reasons to explain the very different results. But the fact remained that he conducted two surveys at virtually the same time in the same district and came up with very different results.

I’m certainly not suggesting that all SurveyUSA polls are inaccurate, and I’ve actually written columns in the past in which I concluded that, in some circumstances, SuveyUSA’s polls were among the most accurate.

I don’t expect to be called by the folks at the Bluegrass Poll in the future to comment on their data. That’s fine. But what isn’t fine is for a media organization – whether a newspaper, a TV station or a TV network – to act as if it’s impossible that its poll numbers are wrong.

At the very least, the Courier-Journal should have acknowledged that possibility and noted that the dramatic change in the Senate head-to-head poll question was difficult to believe.