For whom the Minnesota Poll tolls

Yesterday’s Washington Post carried a story by Richard Morin with a Minnesota twist: “Don’t ask me.” The story reports generally on criticism and questions about public polls this year, but opens with a protest outside the offices of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Three dozen protesters gathered outside the Minneapolis Star Tribune building a month ago. They glowered and pounded on the windows. They carried signs calling the newspaper the “Star and Sickle.” They shouted “Liberal!” at staffers leaving the building.
A few days before the demonstration, Ron Eibensteiner, chairman of the state Republican Party, had demanded that the publisher fire Rob Daves, the paper’s longtime pollster.A few days before the demonstration, Ron Eibensteiner, chairman of the state Republican Party, had demanded that the publisher fire Rob Daves, the paper’s longtime pollster.
A few days later, Eibensteiner amended that request: If you will not fire Daves, at least suspend the paper’s 60-year-old Minnesota Poll until after the election.
Daves’s offense: a poll the previous week suggested that Democrat John Kerry led President Bush by 9 percentage points in Minnesota while subsequent surveys by others suggested a tie or a narrower Kerry lead.

Morin’s reporting here is simply dreadful. Eibensteiner had called for the dismissal of Daves not based on a single poll, but rather based on the sorry history of the Minnesota Poll — a history that Eibensteiner laid out on a spreadsheet at the news conference to which Morin alludes.
The history Eibensteiner laid out showed the Minnesota Poll’s long record of getting things wrong, invariably to the detriment of Minnesota Republicans. It was that history to which the protesters outside the offices of the Star Tribune sought to draw attention.
In the past two elections, the Minnesota Poll’s final pre-election poll results have proved wildly misleading in comparison with the actual electoral results. In each case, the final poll results have dramatically understated Republican support.
In the year 2000 election, for example, the Star Tribune published its final Minnesota Poll on November 5, 2000, two days before the election. The story summarizing the poll results ran on page one and dramatically reported that in a race that had been neck-and-neck, Gore had opened a 10-point lead over Bush, 47 percent to 37 percent.
The story reported that the race was “still-volatile” and quoted University of Minnesota political science professor Steve Smith as saying, “Gore’s in the driver’s seat in Minnesota. It appears a number of Minnesotans came back to Gore-where a lot of people expected them to be all along.” On election day, however, the race was in fact neck-and-neck. Gore edged Bush in Minnesota by only 60,000 votes out of 2,450,000 cast, 47.9 to 45.5 percent.
The poll cannot have been accurate, and its effect on Republican voters can only have been demoralizing. The remarkable fact about the 2000 presidential election is that Bush’s pre-election lead, measured in every national poll, evaporated in the days before the election.
In their post-election recap in the Weekly Standard (November 27, 2000), Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon wrote, “National pollsters are nearly unanimous in believing that a George W. Bush lead of 5 percentage points at the end of October turned into the dead heat in the popular vote that was cast on November 7.” The article reviewed final shifts in voter sentiment in detail, showing that Gore’s closing surge varied in size around the country; his gains were widespread but not uniform.
I thought at the time, and still do, that the Star Tribune’s final pre-election poll was wrong and probably affected the election result in Minnesota. I called Rob Daves to say as much and to complain about it. I also summarized the Bell and Cannon article that belied the poll. With no evidence other than his own poll, Daves stated that Minnesota was an exception to the national trend; in Minnesota, according to Daves, Bush had a closing surge. (After the 2002 election, I wrote about the Minnesota Poll in the column “The trouble with the Star-Trib poll.” I hasten to add that on the several occasions on which I have spoken with him, Daves has demonstrated great patience and tact. He is a respected professional and a gentleman.)
Tomorrow President Bush comes to Minnesota to speak at the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis. Spirits and enthusiasm are running high among Minnesota Republicans. I make no predictions regarding the outcome of the election in Minnesota, but I do make this prediction. If history is any guide, on Sunday the Star Tribune will run its Minnesota Poll showing results that President Bush will substantially exceed on Tuesday. This year, however, Minnesota Republicans have anticipated the Sunday paper and are geared to keep their spirits up through the close of polling places on election day.

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