The majority of public polls in the final month of the 2010 Nevada Senate race showed Republican Sharron Angle with a modest advantage over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Of course, the polls were wrong, and Reid won the race by nearly 6 percentage points. Silver State guru Jon Ralston thinks the same phenomenon may be occurring this year in Nevada, home to another intense Senate race -- and 6 highly-coveted electoral votes.
Ralston published a post Friday on his new blog, RalstonReports.com, entitled "Why most polls done in Nevada are garbage." Here's a brief excerpt:
Remember 2010. Nearly every poll you saw showed that Angle was going to win -- as did Angle's internals. And she lost by nearly 6 points. Six points!
The raw [voter registration] numbers this cycle are very similar in Clark County to what they were in 2008 -- about a 125,000-voter lead (it actually is going to be slightly larger this time.) The way it works is that the South makes up 70 percent of the vote, and if you don't take that into account in your poll, you won't show the kind of raw number lead that Democratic statewide candidates are likely to have (Obama's will be greater than Rep. Shelley Berkley's) that make Republican candidates chances less and less real.
Despite what all of those polls say, Romney's path to victory in Nevada now is much more problematic than any Republican will acknowledge.
Most public polls now show Obama and Romney neck-and-neck at the top of the ticket, with GOP Sen. Dean Heller running narrowly ahead of Berkley. But Berkley's Senate campaign late Friday released the results on an internal poll that showed her with a statistically-insignificant lead over Heller, 42 percent to 39 percent. That poll, first reported by the Washington Post (with Ralston posting the memorandum on his site later Friday), was produced by Mark Mellman, who polled for Reid in 2010. Mellman's polls two years ago consistently showed Reid with a narrow advantage, despite public polling running in the opposite direction.
Private polling isn't always superior to public and media polling, as the Washington Post
's Jon Cohen
writes in a smart piece slated for Sunday's Outlook section
. But there are reasons why the polls conducted for campaigns may once again be superior in a state like Nevada, where the demographic makeup of the electorate is evolving quickly.
Hispanics make up an increasing percentage of the Nevada electorate. In 2004, they made up 10 percent of the electorate, according to exit polls, and that rose to 15 percent in 2008. In 2010, Hispanics ticked up a percentage point as a share of the Nevada electorate, to 16 percent, despite a nationwide decline of a percentage point
, back to 2006 levels. In 2006, Hispanics made up 12 percent of Nevada electorate.
Furthermore, as a new report on Friday underscores
, Nevadans are increasingly more difficult to reach in phone polls. Nearly 35 percent of Nevada adults in 2011 lived in households that only have a cell phone, whereas most public polls in this year's presidential and Senate races call exclusively or mostly landlines. And the rapid rate of landline abandonment -- fewer than 28 percent of Nevadans were cell-only in 2010 -- suggests that polls that ignore or undersample cell phones this year could suffer from increasing bias.
And, as Ralston writes, the Democratic registration advantage in populous Clark County is expected to be even larger this year than in 2008. That makes overcoming Obama's 12-point margin of victory in 2008 -- or Reid's 6-point win in 2010 -- a daunting proposition for Republicans.
The combination of demographic changes and the changing way Americans communicate with one another makes this election a difficult test for public election polling, and Nevada may represent its most challenging arena.