"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

Early polling

About three months back we posted results from a political poll in Idaho – a campaign poll – with the idea that its results could then be compared to the final, actual results.

That poll, from the Sheila Sorensen campaign for the 1st District U.S. House seat, turned out not to be very close to the primary voting results. That poll. we noted, “gives Sorensen 33.2%, enough for a distant first place. It shows Robert Vasquez and Skip Brandt tied for second at 15.4% each, Keith Johnson fourth at 14%, Sali fifth at 11.8% and Norm Semanko last at 10.2%. There is a 5.2% margin of error, which logically puts all of the candidates except Sorensen in spitting distance of each other.” Where did it go wrong? It drastically overstated Sorensen’s strength (she came in third) and Brandt’s (he came in last), and drastically underestimated Sali’s – he won with about 26% of the vote. It did call the Vasquez, Johnson and Semanko results with fair accuracy.

Was there a pattern? Yes. It was a pattern we’ve seen before in Idaho: An underestimation of the strength of the right, and an overestimation of strength on the left (the Brandt quirk aside).

This week we have a new poll, the first new one publicly released on Idaho races since back then. It is an independent (non-campaign) poll and its methodology is quite a bit different, but some of the aspects of the Sorensne poll might nevertheless be holding in the back of your mind.

The new poll by Greg Smith & Associates is a standard poll using traditional polling methology (the Sorensen poll was not). Here is what the new one says:

Office Candidate hard support soft support total
Governor Butch Otter/R 34% 13% 47%
Governor Jerry Brady/D 20% 5% 25%
Lt Gov Jim Risch/R 43% 8% 51%
Lt Gov Larry La Rocco/D 29% 1% 30%
1st US Rep Bill Sali/R 35% 6% 41%
1st US Rep Larry Grant/D 20% 5% 25%

What might we draw from this?

You can draw a bunch of conclusions. Brady’s campaign released (by email; it’s not available on the web site) this: “Congressman Otter has been a politician since Gerald Ford was President, and only 34% of Idahoans are sure to vote for him … I’d be concerned if I were Congressman Otter. With numbers like that, if I were Otter, I might spend more time in Idaho and less time in D.C. With 46% of the voters unsure who they will support, I feel good because Idahoans don’t want another career politician. They want someone like me, someone who is independent, like Idaho.”

Okay, to a point: Incumbents who fall below 50% are often considered to be in danger, and even Risch – coming off a pile of favorable headlines – hits only 51%. Sali isn’t an incumbent, but as the Republican in the race he has a kind of position of psychological incumbency, so his 41% looks a little unimpressive.

Here’s what Smith (who, we should note, is a Republican of long standing and formerly a Republican congressional staffer) had to say:

“Although this poll is an early measurement of public opinion, and as a result almost certainly a strong reflection of generic party preference, one nonetheless has to be impressed by the leads by Otter over Brady, Risch over LaRocco, and Sali over Grant. In the case of Otter, the money the campaign has and will have raised, his gregariousness, the long list of corporate and personal supporters, and his overall congruence of political philosophy with the Idaho electorate have all played contributing roles. As to Risch, he enjoys the political advantage of being governor until January, 2007 (temporarily replacing now-Secretary of the Interior and former Idaho governor Dirk Kempthorne), and as a result is already reaping the benefits of incumbency and minimizing the name awareness advantage that LaRocco might otherwise have had as a former Idaho 1st District Congressman. For example, Risch gained almost nine percentage points in support beginning Tuesday evening (July 25) after announcing that the Idaho Legislature would go into special session in August in order to directly address property tax reform – one of the biggest concerns of Idaho voters. And, even Risch detractors are impressed by his pace and focus of work in just his first few weeks of being governor. Brady, LaRocco, and Grant, their Democratic opponents, are all very intelligent and capable, and should not be underestimated. All things equal, however, they need to (1) derive higher levels of name awareness, (2) develop appealing candidate profiles, and (3) convince Idaho voters that they as Democrats are as much in tune with them as their Republican opponents.“

Smith added, “At this early stage, the race to succeed Otter as Idaho’s 1st District Congressman had been perceived as being the most hotly contested of the three. Both Sali and Grant have work to do, given that a third of likely voters do not express either “hard” or “soft” support for either candidate at this point. Larry Grant needs to convince the national Democratic powers that be that he has a good chance of winning (which has not sufficiently occurred to date), and convince Idaho 1st District voters that he is not a Democrat in the vein of more liberal candidates/ officeholders in other parts of the country. Bill Sali still needs to continue uniting Republican support (given he won the Republican primary with only 26% of the 1st District GOP primary vote), and that much of the media treatment of him, and perception(s) which may be arising as a result, are misleading or incorrect.”

We’d make just three other quick observations.

1. It’s early. July is political down-time; wait for mid-September at least for something more definitive.

2. Political polling in Idaho is a tricky business. Our belief is that a significant number of Idahoans like to lie to pollsters. And

3. Polls in Idaho tend to underestimate the strength of hard-core conservatives, a trend going back quite a few years. Keep a watchin’.

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