The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Giving Rasmussen Credit As Due

The Pollster Proved Inaccurate but Unbiased When Predicting the Massachusetts Senate Race

GOP candidate Scott Brown pulled off a truly transformative triumph last night, winning the Senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy and becoming the first Republican Senator from Massachusetts in nearly thirty years. Pundits and politicians alike have gone into overdrive attempting to analyze and explain both what Brown and the Republicans did right as well as what loser Martha Coakley, President Obama, and the Democrats did wrong.

I will leave them to it and instead focus on what another player in all this did right and wrong – the folks at Rasmussen Reports.

Scott Rasmussen and his crew typically receive very differently ratings along partisan lines. Many Republicans/conservatives consider him the most accurate pollster operating today. For their part, many Democrats/liberals dismiss him with accusations ranging from a Republican bias to an outright GOP shill. At heart is the proportion of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents included in Rasmussen polls versus other polling organizations.

Rasmussen himself insists his methods are both unbiased and more accurate because he focuses on likely voters versus registered voters or all adults.

So how did Rasmussen fare in the Massachusetts Senate special election?

Back on January 4, Rasmussen released the first credible poll showing Brown making enormous inroads into Coakley’s lead, formerly assumed insurmountable. Ben Smith at Politico acknowledged this poll as a game changer in how experts viewed the race.

So, with such apparently astute insight into how the election was trending, how did Rasmussen do in predicting the winner and final numbers? The answer, in a nutshell, is that he equivocated and still got it wrong.

Rasmussen relied on his organization own final poll, published on January 11, that showed Brown had pulled within two points of Coakley. On Monday, January 18, Rasmussen wrote an analysis entitled, What Will Happen in Massachusetts on Tuesday. In it, he concluded, “we’re right back where we were a week ago,” meaning, in his mind, it was a dead heat.

In reality, Brown maintained a consistent lead of about five points throughout the night. This was in line with what almost every poll taken on January 14 or later predicted.

What is more, Rasmussen identified the key element to Brown’s success as low turnout. “Brown is leading slightly among those certain to vote . . . If [last minute Democratic efforts] boosts turnout among Democrats, [Coakley] will win.” Such a prediction was consistent with Rasmussen’s emphasis on a likely voter model.

In fact, Democratic turnout was strong but as the Boston Herald reports this morning, “High turnout in Bay State suburbs and among Independent voters who flocked to the polls eclipsed a healthy turnout in staunchly Democratic Boston, fueling Republican Scott Brown's victory yesterday.”

Rasmussen’s less-than-perfect predictions were pulled off the site’s front page this morning (although not off the site altogether) and replaced by a self-congratulatory piece stressing the organization’s early detection of Brown’s surging momentum. Rasmussen showed more integrity and courage in reporting the results of its exit polling.

Rasmussen has trumpeted the unpopularity of the various healthcare reform bills in Congress throughout the past year, legislation that Brown’s forty-first Republican Senate vote very well may now kill. “The health care issue is front and center as the reason Brown has gained traction,” assured Rasmussen in his pre-election analysis.

Today, the site admits that among the fifty-six percent of Massachusetts voters who named healthcare reform as their number one priority, Coakley actually won by a seven point margin. Brown’s support was greatest among voters whose number one priorities were national security or taxes and he won by a narrow margin among those ranking the economy in general as their top concern.

Granted, special elections are notoriously difficult to predict. Still, Rasmussen’s analysis is a blow to Republicans who trumpet his accuracy.

However, it is at least equally as big a kick in the teeth to Democratic charges of partisan bias. Rasmussen’s predictions did indeed prove too “conservative” but in the other sense of this word. While not glossing over his mistakes, they are undeniably at odds with someone attempting to spin results in a Republican direction. What is more, he was forthcoming when his pet issue proved less substantive than assumed.

Rasmussen Reports may occasionally engage in self-promotion but all for-profit media organizations are guilty of this practice from time to time. Its performance in the Massachusetts Senate special election showed timely if imperfect insight and no sign of bias for the Republican candidate, let alone acting as a partisan promoter for the GOP. Scott Rasmussen and his staff deserve recognition for this.


TSC said...

Thank God Scott Brown won.

run75441 said...

Hi Bell:

It appears that Coakley got the college vote and Brown got the non-college vote. It also appears African-Americans and Latinos who largely went for Obama in 2008, stayed home for this election. Unfortunaly, the Dems added to the problem by not taking this election as seriously as they should have.