“I blew it.”
Those were the first three words of an opinion piece written by Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll, for the Newark, New Jersey, Star-Ledger following the results in that state’s gubernatorial race on Tuesday.
Long considered a lock for incumbent Democrat Gov. Phil Murphy, the vote count as of Friday morning had Murphy up by only 2.3 points, according to The New York Times.
While Murphy has been declared the winner by media organizations — GOP challenger Jack Ciattarelli has yet to concede — this wasn’t how it was supposed to go down.
The RealClearPolitics average had Murphy up by 7.8 points. However, no poll until September showed Ciattarelli, a virtually unknown former assemblyman, within fewer than 10 points of the incumbent governor. The first poll, in May, showed him 26 points behind.
The Monmouth University Poll, meanwhile, had Murphy up by 11 points. Taken between Oct. 21 and Oct. 25 among 1,000 likely voters, it had a 3.1 percent margin of error — meaning, in the most conservative case, Ciattarelli should have lost by 8 points.
It’s enough to make Patrick Murray question whether opinion polling should even be used in elections.
“The final Monmouth University Poll margin did not provide an accurate picture of the state of the governor’s race,” Murray wrote in the Thursday piece.
“So, if you are a Republican who believes the polls cost Ciattarelli an upset victory or a Democrat who feels we lulled your base into complacency, feel free to vent. I hear you.
“I owe an apology to Jack Ciattarelli’s campaign — and to Phil Murphy’s campaign for that matter — because inaccurate public polling can have an impact on fundraising and voter mobilization efforts.
“But most of all I owe an apology to the voters of New Jersey for information that was at the very least misleading.”
So why did they miss?
As Murray put it, his role is to figure out the “public mood as it exists now.” Polling, he said, does a good job of it, providing an accurate picture of how the public at large feels about an issue or an individual.
“Election polling is a different animal, prone to its fair share of misses if you focus only on the margins,” Murray said.
“For example, Monmouth’s polls four years ago nailed the New Jersey gubernatorial race but significantly underestimated Democratic performance in the Virginia contest. This year, our final polls provided a reasonable assessment of where the Virginia race was headed but missed the spike in Republican turnout in New Jersey.”
This is because, he said, election polling “violates the basic principles of survey sampling.”
“For an election poll, we do not know exactly who will vote until after Election Day, so we have to create models of what we think the electorate could look like,” Murray said.
“Those models are not perfect,” he said. “They classify a sizable number of people who do not cast ballots as ‘likely voters’ and others who actually do turn out as being ‘unlikely.’
“These models have tended to work, though, because the errors balance out into a reasonable projection of what the overall electorate eventually looks like.”
While he argued the Monmouth University Poll had a relatively strong track record, he said “the growing perception that polling is broken cannot be easily dismissed.”
This is something we all knew, and it’s not just perception. It’s also not just limited to the 2021 gubernatorial elections, which predicted a sure win for Murphy and had Democrat Terry McAuliffe leading the Virginia gubernatorial race until the very end, according to RealClearPolitics data. He lost to Republican Glenn Youngkin on Tuesday, 50.9 percent to 48.4 percent, according to the Times.
In the 2020 presidential race, the RealClearPolitics average showed Joe Biden with a 7.2 percent lead nationally over Donald Trump; he won by 4.5 percent.
This led Murray to speculate on whether political opinion polling was a good thing at all.
“Some organizations have decided to opt-out of election polling altogether, including the venerable Gallup Poll and the highly regarded Pew Research Center, because it distracts from the contributions of their public interest polling,” he wrote.
“Other pollsters went AWOL this year,” Murray said. “For instance, Quinnipiac has been a fixture during New Jersey and Virginia campaigns for decades but issued no polls in either state this year.
“Perhaps that is a wise move. If we cannot be certain that these polling misses are anomalies then we have a responsibility to consider whether releasing horse race numbers in close proximity to an election is making a positive or negative contribution to the political discourse.”
Part of this is that “[h]onest missteps get conflated with ‘fake news’ — a charge that has hit election polls in recent years,” the pollster said.
Perhaps not fake news — but if there’s something broken in polling, it’s not farfetched to say the answer lies with inbuilt biases.
Murray acknowledged earlier in the piece that one red flag should have been that Murphy had never polled much above 50 percent against a challenger only die-hard New Jersey political insiders could identify. (Watching veteran political reporters struggle to correctly settle on a pronunciation of Ciattarelli in the final week of the campaign was an especial delight to this observer.)
In Monmouth’s final poll, there should have been another red flag — while Murphy was still in the lead, taxes had become the top issue among voters, something respondents trusted Ciattarelli to handle better than Murphy by a 10-point margin, 39 percent to 29 percent.
For what it’s worth, too, Monmouth was also the institution that disavowed its own poll in late August 2019 regarding the Democratic presidential nomination. That survey showed Biden dropping 13 points and in a three-way tie with Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
— MonmouthPoll (@MonmouthPoll) August 28, 2019
“As other national polls of 2020 Democratic presidential race have been released this week, it is clear that the Monmouth University Poll published Monday is an outlier,” Murray said in the Aug. 28 statement.
While it may have been an outlier, it was arguably an augury of where the race was headed.
Again looking at the RealClearPolitics data, late August 2019 is when Warren began gaining on Biden in earnest, briefly leading him in the polls by October. Sanders would also see a steady climb in his numbers until the spring, briefly leading Biden until the eventual nominee won the South Carolina primary and scored a decisive victory on Super Tuesday.
With all of that said, Murray gets a few things very right.
Yes, he blew it.
Yes, there’s the chance that the fact he and others blew it had real ramifications in the New Jersey race.
Yes, there’s the perception election polling is broken.
One would argue that’s not just perception, however — and a better solution might be to figure out how to properly weight the electorate and notice trends as they emerge, something that’s hardly just a failure of the 2021 gubernatorial election cycle.
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