A primer on polls



Political polls are getting a lot of attention in the race for Louisiana governor. Everybody likes to get “inside” information, but too often people look at polls as if they were crystal balls — magical devices able to divine the future. Polls do not predict the future. Never have, never will.

Want proof? Consider former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. He led his GOP challenger by nearly 30 percentage points in the polls before losing the primary. Were the polls wrong? No. They just weren’t predictors of a future event. Many of Cantor’s voters stayed home, while others turned against him in the final days.

Polls are snapshots in time. They render an accurate picture of voters’ attitudes and opinions at a particular moment. They do not predict what those attitudes and opinions will be a week or two later, let alone months later.

Think of it this way: An election is like a football game, and a poll is like a photograph of the scoreboard at the end of the first quarter or at halftime. It accurately shows who’s ahead at that particular point in time — but it does not predict who will win in the end. This past Sunday's Saints-Cowboys game is a perfect example.

The recent poll by the Washington-based Clarus Research Group for WWL-TV and THE ADVOCATE got a lot of attention because it showed U.S. Sen. David Vitter slipping from his once-dominant position at the head of the pack — to the point that he trails each of his opponents in hypothetical head-to-head runoff matchups. Predictably (and this much in politics is predictable), Vitter’s minions took cheap shots at Clarus pollster Dr. Ron Faucheux — calling him a “Democrat pollster” and otherwise trying to discredit him.

For the record, Faucheux hasn’t been a Democrat for nearly 25 years. In fact, the last two candidates for whom he polled were staunch Republicans. In war (and politics), truth is always the first casualty.

Here’s my take on that survey and what it says about Vitter’s prospects: Vitter has lost the “soft” support he had last spring, but his core support is still enough to get him into the runoff. That’s objective data, pure and simple. This is subjective analysis: In a runoff against Democrat John Bel Edwards, Vitter’s overwhelming fundraising advantage, his unrivaled ability stay on message, and Louisiana’s undeniable “red” leanings will make him the favorite.

In fact, Vitter’s performance in last week’s televised debate may already have erased Edwards’ four-point lead over him in the Clarus survey. In that debate, Vitter pointedly noted that Edwards was a delegate for President Barack Obama at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Put $5 million behind that message in the runoff, and David Vitter is your next governor.

One other thing no survey can foretell: Will the anti-Vitter voters of Louisiana (Democrats as well as Republicans) coalesce behind one of the other two Republican candidates — Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne or Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle — and propel him past a weakened Vitter in the Oct. 24 primary?

We’re just now entering the second half of the game. The score likely will change, but there’s no way to predict who will be leading when time runs out.

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