Why Polls Lie To You (And You Love It)

If there is one consistent theme among the polling data, it is that Democrats are staring down an enthusiasm gap.

Polls are a funny thing.

Ideally they are a snapshot in time, where one tries to measure the mood of the electorate between a certain timeframe — typically a few days — and uses that to feed a predictive model of sorts.

Most predictive modelling in politics consists of a hunch from a 30+ year veteran of the game talking to other veterans who pour over crosstabs in the same way the Romans augured to predict the will of the gods. See that — we aren’t so far from the ancients after all.

UMW: Youngkin by 5; Sears +6; Miyares +4

Republicans this morning are pounding the table furiously at the University of Mary Washington Poll showing Republican challenger Glenn Youngkin holding a 5 point lead over former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe among likely voters. Those numbers flip dramatically when registered voters are asked, with McAuliffe holding a 5 point lead in return. Liberation Party candidate Princess Blanding scores at 2 points in both instances — insignificant to some but the margin of victory to McAuliffe.

Downballot? Republican former Delegate Winsome Sears (R-Norfolk) is leading her erstwhile opposition by 6 points. For the AG nod, Republican Delegates Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) is leading Democratic AG Mark Herring by 4 points — which is shocking given that at the same time last year, Herring was leading his Republican opposition 47-40.

KAConsulting: McAuliffe +4; Ayala +10; Herring +16

If there’s one thing Kellyanne Conway is damn good at doing, it is polling and focus groups. Want to know how Donald Trump won in 2016? Talk to Kellyanne — full stop.

So if Conway is such a fine pollster, then why are her polls so wrong??? I mean… um… why aren’t they telling me what I want to hear?!!

Here’s the secret about reading polls. You have to understand what they are telling you and why. This poll is telling us two things — name ID is low and the following issues will turn increased name ID into support.

Now if you want to flip the channel back to the Mary Washington poll, what is that telling us? When they asked the right direction/wrong direction question, that number was 23/49. Among likely voters? 25/52.

Afghanistan, folks.

In the KAConsulting poll? Right direction/wrong direction sits at 47/46. And where Conway focuses her questions? You guessed it — CRT, public safety and law enforcement. Translation? Tease out these questions in the electorate and you might improve your numbers overall.

PPP: McAuliffe +3

Of course, Public Policy Polling (not to be confused with CCC Polling) is talking to a registered voter pool and teasing out some similar numbers to Conway — that McAuliffe has a slight edge and there are other issues that McAuliffe can leverage to increase that total — namely Medicaid expansion and COVID relief.

50% of those surveyed were over text messaging. Take from that what you will.

For wiser ducks among us, I want you guys to check out how these pollsters are operating:

  1. Paint a picture.

  2. Tease the candidate with the sale of “if you focus on X you will get +3”

  3. Profit.

Now if the wise augurs bite on any of this because if fits their candidate or their preconceived notions of how the race ought to go (or how it might help a future candidate) — they’ll engage the services of that pollster…

Sausages, anyone?

Emerson: McAuliffe +4; Herring +6

Back to the colleges and universities, with Emerson showing McAuliffe +4 among likely voters. Herring leads Miyares by 6, while the poll mysteriously does not reveal the Ayala/Sears contest (unless someone can share that).

We are starting to pick up a pattern here. McAuliffe by 4 and on the right side of the margin of error (MoE). Republicans can rock ourselves to sleep by saying the race is “statistically tied” (whatever that means in practice), but the gate swings both ways.

WaPo/George Mason: McAuliffe +3

Notable takeaways here are that for the WaPo/GMU set is that COVID and the economy dominate the landscape. The electorate trusts Youngkin on public safety and taxes, split evenly with McAuliffe on the economy, and break McAuliffe on everything else.

Northam in contrast seems to have weathered the storm mostly well, not just the blackface scandal but COVID with 47% approval ratings. By contrast:

McAuliffe (2017) was 49/25.
McDonnell (2013) was 49/39.
Kaine (2009) was 58/30.
Warner (2005) was 80/17 — no joke.
Gilmore (2001) was 62/33.
Allen (1997) was 66/27.

Another interesting number in the WaPo poll was the question as to whether or not one could be persuaded to change one’s mind on your preferred candidate. Republicans and Democrats seem committed to their candidates at 81% each, which is far different than Northam (68%) and Gillespie (63%) just four years ago. In short, opinions are pretty well hardened.

On name ID? 48% of the electorate still hasn’t gotten to know Youngkin, whereas 34% has yet to get to know McAuliffe.

BONUS POLL? VCU Wilder With McAuliffe +9

A sixth poll?!

Most people are looking at the VCU Wilder poll and scratching their heads just a bit in way we aren’t doing with the UMW poll. Not just because we all prefer to hear the UMW numbers, but because VCU continues to poll adults rather than registered voters much less likely voters.

But you have to remember an earlier point — they’re telling us something. We just have to tease out what they are telling us and why.

With the VCU poll, what we are seeing here are two things:

  1. There is an enthusiasm gap among the Democrats — no question. When you back the VCU poll of adults vs. the other polling firms targeting likely voters, you get instant confirmation that yes — McAuliffe is hemmoraging votes.

  2. That if Republican anger maintains a stratospheric intensity, Democrats are about to find out that this blue state is really a red state that finally got its act together.

Of course, there’s a hitch to all of this.

These polls were all conducted when anger directed at President Joe Biden over the bungled withdrawal in Afghanistan was at a fever pitch.

Second and perhaps more damaging? These polls were conducted before Youngkin goofed the pro-life question at the debate.

Now the Youngkin campaign has been working overtime to tamp down pro-lifers still aghast at the answer followed up by what are frankly just plain ol’ bullying tactics from a predictable handful ensconced in the campaign.

Not a universal problem, but an axiomatic one.

So What Can We Divine From The Auguries?

Whelp — a couple of things:

  • Youngkin is on the wrong side of the MoE. Don’t whine about it — if you were to do the hard math a year ago and ask where Virginia stood, you’d say any generic election was 53-47 in favor of the Dems. Where is the race now? Right about 53-47 when you boil it down.

  • Voter enthusiasm is the absolute key for both sides. McAuliffe keeps trying to turn Youngkin into Donald Trump and it’s just not working. What has worked — and what bothers me just a touch — is that McAuliffe is successfully twisting the kaleidoscope so as to make Youngkin (and not Northam/McAuliffe) the incumbent. Odd strategy, but there it is.

  • In the meantime, the pro-life question isn’t going away. Youngkin has about a week to fix this, I think. The juxtaposition of saying life begins at conception yet endorsing a 20-week open season on babies (which is curiously aligned to Ted Cruz’s messaging elsewhere) is objectively at odds and dichotic — and campaign advisors know they are going to have to give pro-lifers a reason to stick around.

    There’s a way to thread this needle that respects pro-life values while recognizing facts on the ground. Make abortion unthinkable (and defund Planned Parenthood).

  • Law and order is working for Miyares; CRT and “Defunding The Police” are hammers we should use again and again and again. Keep your eyes on how Jason Miyares is running his campaign. If Miyares is within striking distance, expect undecideds to break 2:1 in favor of the challenger.

  • Winsome Sears is wowing the world. Staff reshuffling? Pshaw… not only is Sears wonderfully pro-life and unapologetically so, Sears remains a terrific team player with the rest of the GOP ticket — and her trouncing of Ayala in poll after poll after poll is evidence that Sears is just more real than her opposition. With increased spending on name ID? Winsome is precisely who Republicans want presiding over the Virginia Senate.

One closing caveat.

I’m a big believer in being Republican for a reason.

But if we are going to win this race — and I think we stand a better chance with every bit of the Republican coalition in Virginia rather than sloughing off social conservatives in the hopes that moderates might hate us less — then it is going to have to be with both lungs.

Nothing in politics moves unless it is pushed. Youngkin’s handlers figured they could sacrifice pro-lifers in exchange for suburban moderates. What they didn’t count on is that a group of people who stare down abortionists aren’t going to fold to folks LARPing as Karl Rove.

If you are pro-life, keep pressuring folks to take a stand on defunding Planned Parenthood and advancing a pro-family agenda to make abortion unthinkable. If you’re pro-life but put a high price on personal autonomy, look for ways that respect the personal autonomy of mothers and their babies.

The pro-life question? It’s not going away — nor should it go away. We will see how the polls reflect that question as we get the results a week from today.


Shaun Kenney is the editor of The Republican Standard, former chairman of the Board of Supervisors for Fluvanna County, and a former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia.