NYC: Thompson strategist slams poll distortions

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Spin Cycle

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   Bruce Gyory, Albany-based consultant for the mayoral campaign of Bill Thompson, has penned a memo to the campaign's chief Jonathan Prince, lacerating use of the public polls -- Marist, Quinnipiac, Siena -- as indicators of who is really  "ahead" based on how the numbers are told and spun. He ventures that even though nobody shows Thompson in the lead, the former comptroller is actually in a three-way dead heat against Christine Quinn and Bill de Blasio. Gyory points, interestingly, to contradictions among the findings and how off some late polls proved to be in past elections.

Here's the critique:

The definition of travesty is a ludicrous incongruity of style. Today in New York the public polls in the 2013 mayoral race have become a travesty.

This has been a long time coming. Since 2001, the public polls in New York have been blowing margins, exacerbated by their growing inability to accurately track the size, but particularly the break of minority voters. Given that New York’s electorate is a firm minority majority (56-58% of the vote this year will be the aggregate of Black, Hispanic, Asian and multi-racial), that is a profound gap in the reliability of public polls.

Let’s look at what the public polls have said just in this last week via their likely voter samples on the mayoral race:

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1. Siena/NYT poll released August 9th had the race Quinn 26%, Thompson 19%, DeBlasio 14%.

2. Q poll released August 13th had it DeBlasio 30%, Quinn 24%, Thompson 22%.

3. Marist/WSJ released on August 15th had it Quinn and DeBlasio at 24% and Thompson at 18%.

So is Quinn in the lead with Thompson and DeBlasio in a dog fight for second; or is DeBlasio surging with Quinn and Thompson in a dog fight?; or is it a 3 person race for two run-off spots with Quinn and DeBlasio tied and Thompson within striking distance? These polls project 3 different portraits of the electorate that are in fact virtually irreconcilable.

The polling data is also all over the lot on the crucial factor of size of the undecided: Q poll had it at only 7%, Marist had it at 15%. Other private polling last week pegged undecided at 25% of the electorate. The difference between undecided at 10% or 20% is a profound difference, with a huge impact on the close (i.e., the outcome) of this campaign.

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The crosstabs are even more askew. In the Siena/Times poll Quinn was getting a third of the vote in Manhattan substantially ahead of DeBlasio and 40% amongst those earning $100,000 or more. In Marist, Quinn got only 24% of those making over $50,000 and was ahead of DeBlasio by only 30-27% in Manhattan.

Seniors broke for Thompson at 18%, Quinn 16%, 13% for Weiner and 12% DeBlasio in the Siena/Times poll. In Marist those 60 and older broke: Quinn 26%, Thompson and DeBlasio 21%, Weiner at 8%.

Amongst whites, Quinnipiac had it at DeBlasio 39%, Quinn 31%, Thompson 12% and Weiner at 7%. In Marist, whites broke down: DeBlasio 29%, Quinn 26% and Thompson 15%. Thompson was at 19% of Jewish voters in the Marist survey. For DeBlasio and Thompson the difference between being respectively at 40% and 12% or 30% and 15% of the white vote is a critical difference in terms of outcome.

But the greatest disparity of all was amongst Blacks. In the Siena/Times poll blacks broke down: Thompson 24%, Quinn 18%, 15% for Weiner and DeBlasio at 12%. In the Q poll it was: Thompson 39%, DeBlasio 22%, Quinn 18% and Weiner 8%. Marist tracked Blacks at Thompson 22%, DeBlasio 20%, Quinn 17% and Weiner 16%.

If Thompson were at 39% of Blacks from the Q poll, but Marist was correct placing him at 15% whites, 19% of Jewish and 21% of those over 60 years of age, he would be in the lead.

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The stark disparity, both in the cross tabs and the percentage of undecided, render these three polls a kaleidoscope of unanswered questions, rather than a clear prism through which to project the outcome of this primary. To pretend otherwise is folly.

Let’s briefly recount how often these public polls have been wrong in recent years. In 2005, they projected a Bloomberg margin at 35-38% over Ferrer, when Bloomberg won by 19% (the difference was their underestimation of Ferrer’s minority strength).

In 2009, the public polls projected landslide margins for Bloomberg and he won by just under 5% (again the polls underestimated both the share cast and the percentage of the minority vote Thompson received and that Thompson received 29% of whites).

In 2010, the closing public polls projected Cuomo dropping toward 55% and Schneiderman and DiNapoli in dead heats with their GOP challengers. Their likely voter samples significantly underweighted the NYC share of the vote and the female share. But the big mistake for example was Siena, projecting in their last 2010 likely voter poll, that the aggregate minority vote would cast a 15% share of the total vote. Exit polls showed the aggregate minority vote statewide to be 29% (they underestimated the minority vote by nearly 100%!). Moreover, that minority vote broke for the Democrats statewide ticket in 2010 at about 4 ½ - 1. The result was Cuomo crossed 60%, Schneiderman won by 12% and DiNapoli 4%.

Given all of this, for the media this year, to project these public polls as dispositive on this mayoral race (given their empirical flaws and their gross disparities) can only be described as collective amnesia.

I can feel a Dewey Defeats Truman moment on the horizon. In 2009, the media could argue their innocence, as they were fooled by the pollsters’ press releases. That is in fact the argument I made in Clark Hoyt’s Public Editor column in the Times just after the 2009 election. But if the media reports this year’s public polls as gospel, and furthermore, if they let it shape their coverage of the race, they will not be able to escape blame, if these public polls prove wrong once again.

A fair analysis, distilling all of this public polling data, would conclude that this is a three way near dead heat race for 2 spots in the run-off.

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