Gehrke: What should we make of the contradictory poll numbers in the race between Love and McAdams?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke is ready to get nerdy for a minute and discuss why polls can be so contradictory.

Have you seen the latest polls in the 4th District race between Rep. Mia Love and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams?

Either they’re neck-and-neck. Or Love is up nine. Or McAdams is down four and closing. Or he’s down 10 and she’s pulling away. Or McAdams has a 12 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl.

The good news, I guess, is no matter which candidate you support, there’s a poll that makes you feel good about your candidate. And feeling good is important.

The bad news is that the numbers are so scattered that nobody really knows who’s winning this race.

So let’s get nerdy for a minute and discuss why that is.

There are really two parts of polling, the easy part and the really, really hard part.

The easy part is calling a bunch of people and asking them whom they plan to vote for (although that’s getting harder in the days of cellphones). This is the part most of us, at one time or another, have participated in, and it makes us feel smart and important.

The challenge comes when pollsters have to predict what the electorate is going to look like in the upcoming election. Are more Republicans going to turn out? Will young people finally put down Tinder and vote? Does vote-by-mail favor one party or demographic over another? What percentage of minority voters are going to show up?

This prediction is where the magic happens. And I call it magic because, like a magician, most pollsters refuse to reveal how they performed their trick. But how they do it matters. A lot, it turns out.

Look at the presidential results from the last election. Most pollsters were pretty confident that Hillary Clinton was going to win the presidency comfortably.

The problem was, most pollsters were wrong when it came to modeling the electorate. It ended up more people than expected actually voted, and they were whiter, older and more Republican than pollsters expected. That shift left pollsters with red faces and an orange president.

This year, in Utah’s 4th Congressional District in particular, there are an awful lot of moving pieces that make predicting what the electorate will look like even trickier than normal.

Will there be the much-talked-about “Blue Wave,” for example? We’ve seen Democrats running very strong in special elections in the past year and, as polling guru Nate Silver notes at fivethirtyeight.com, Democrats are polling seven or eight points ahead in most generic ballots.

There are even some indicators Democrats are harnessing a potential backlash against President Donald Trump in Utah. Since Trump took office, the number of active registered Democrats in the state has increased by 5,810. (That is the net increase, after the elections office moves voters who haven’t voted in recent elections into “inactive” status.) Republicans, meantime, have had their numbers drop by 14,257.

Republicans still outnumber Democrats by about 4-to-1 in the state, compared to 4.2-to-1 on Inauguration Day. But it does indicate the direction voters are moving.

Quantifying what that wave might look like two months from now, however, is not easy.

Remarkably, Love’s campaign polling firm, Y2 Analytics, tried to model what they think it would look like and, in a refreshing display of transparency, actually released its forecast. “I think there’s potential for a Blue Wave of some kind in Utah,” said Y2 co-founder Quin Monson, but, he adds, it would likely be “smaller than elsewhere in the country, if only because there are fewer Democrats to form the wave here.”

Even that comes with a caveat, though. Analysts say it’s unclear if MItt Romney’s Senate candidacy will mobilize Republicans, which could mean a Blue Wave crashing into a Romney Tsunami.

Then there’s the impact of the ballot initiatives. The three on the ballot — for medical marijuana, an independent redistricting commission and Medicaid expansion — are likely to act as a magnet to draw more left-leaning voters to mail in their ballots. How much they’ll matter is hard to say, because we don’t have many recent examples of progressive ballot initiatives in Utah.

So if you’re confused about the polls, you’re not alone.

“[Voters] should look at this and say, ‘This is a very close race.’ And how do they know this is a close race? There are a lot of good polls that say this is a close race,” McAdams’ pollster, Mark Mellman said. “And [Love and McAdams] are behaving as if this is a close race.”

It’s solid advice: Stop watching polls and start watching the candidates, because the next two months in the 4th District are going to get very interesting — and we don’t need polls to tell us that.

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