Polls on Kansas governor’s race vary wildly

07/28/2014 5:26 PM

08/08/2014 10:25 AM

A pair of polls released three days apart offer wildly different predictions about the Kansas governor’s race.

A poll by Survey USA, paid for by KSN-TV in Wichita and released July 24, showed Democrat Paul Davis leading Gov. Sam Brownback 48 percent to 40. Just three days later, a poll by YouGov, paid for by CBS and the New York Times, showed Brownback far ahead of Davis.

Brownback led Davis 47 percent to 37 percent in the YouGov poll, with another 5 percent of voters leaning toward Brownback and 3 percent leaning toward Davis. The remaining respondents were either undecided, supporting other candidates or not planning to vote.

Both polls should be viewed with skepticism, said Chapman Rackaway, a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

The SurveyUSA poll showed 29 percent of Republicans were supporting Davis, a Lawrence Democrat and the House minority leader. The YouGov poll, on the other hand, had only 9 percent of Republicans either supporting or leaning toward Davis.

The two polls used vastly different methodologies.

The SurveyUSA poll interviewed 2,400 Kansans by phone and based its findings for the governor’s race on the 1,208 people who were determined to be likely to vote in the general election. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

Polling by phone has become increasingly unreliable as many Americans have unplugged their landlines, according to Rackaway. Older Republican voters in Kansas tend to be more moderate in their views, he said, and might be more likely to support Davis.

SurveyUSA did contact respondents by cell phone if they could not be reached by land line. Davis did better with respondents on land lines, which made up 86 percent of those surveyed, and Brownback did better with cell phone users, which made up the remaining 14 percent.

Brownback’s campaign manager, Mark Dugan, called the SurveyUSA poll “bogus” in a fundraising e-mail last week.

The YouGov poll was conducted with an online panel of more than 100,000 respondents nationwide that will be tracked through November. Of those, 1,274 Kansans responded to questions about the governor's race; that number includes 2 percent who said they did not plan to vote in November.

“This is truly a first time attempt at doing anything like this. It could be that they’re absolutely spot-on. Or it could be an unmitigated disaster. We don’t know because we’ve got no other online panels of this size and magnitude to compare it to,” Rackaway said.

The New York Times acknowledged that the YouGov poll comes with questions. The poll is capable of reaching only households with Internet, 81 percent of the population nationally.

It also lacks the randomness of a phone poll. YouGov selects a demographically diverse set of respondents that are meant to be representative of the general population and mimic the results of a random poll, but it is not random.

“Another issue is that the YouGov panel does not use probability sampling, the theoretical underpinning of modern polling,” Nate Cohn wrote for the Times. “In a probability sample, every voter should have an equal chance of being randomly selected, making the sample representative. Phone numbers provide a device for randomization that is impossible online.”

However, Cohn contended that YouGov’s data is worthy of consideration based on the firm’s accuracy in predicting the 2012 presidential election and because phone polls have become increasingly less reliable for data on younger voters.

Rackaway suggested splitting the difference between the two polls, and said that the governor’s race is a dead heat.

“We’re probably right within the margin of error. We’re at a near-virtual tie,” Rackaway said. “If you take both the YouGov and the SurveyUSA with a little grain of salt, it means a couple of things. The electorate is volatile. We’re still trying to figure out: Do we like Brownback’s direction? Do we want to follow Davis in this different direction?”

“I think there’s still a lot of movement that can happen in any of these polls, and I don’t have complete confidence in any of them yet,” he added.

RealClearPolitics, a Chicago-based website which aggregates data from competing polls, gave Brownback an edge of 46 percent to 44 percent.

Dakota Loomis, spokesman for the Kansas Democratic Party, said trying to run a campaign based on the latest poll is a fool’s errand.

He also said the YouGov poll did not list Libertarian candidate Keen Umbehr and that could inflate Brownback’s numbers.

“Right now all these polls, I think, are just noise,” Loomis said. “All that really matters is raising money, talking to voters and getting your message out.”

Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, tempered his enthusiasm about the YouGov poll.

“I couldn’t tell you which poll I would say is solid and reliable and believable,” Barker said. “But I think it just shows that, depending on how you poll, one guy’s leading or the other guy (is leading).”

Rackaway said the best indicator of where Brownback stands will be the Aug. 5 primary, in which Brownback faces a challenge from Wichita business owner Jennifer Winn, who is running on a grassroots campaign focused on legalizing marijuana and reforming the state’s felony murder law.

“He should be cruising 90 percent in that primary. If Winn does pull north of 20 percent, Brownback has a problem,” Rackaway said. If Winn breaks that threshold, it would signal discontent in the GOP ranks and could mean support for Davis in November, Rackaway said.

SurveyUSA had Winn polling at 30 percent. She was not included in the YouGov poll.

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