Don’t Believe the Latest Elizabeth Warren-Hillary Clinton Poll

It’s a lesson in how polls can artificially puff up candidates.

Shirts are piled at the New Hampshire launch of the 'Run Warren Run' event urging U.S. Senator (D) Elizabeth Warren to run for President in 2016 at Waumbec Mill Building on January 17, 2015 in Manchester, New Hampshire.
National Journal
Emma Roller
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Emma Roller
Feb. 11, 2015, 9:09 a.m.

On Wed­nes­day, the group Run War­ren Run — which is fight­ing a quix­ot­ic cam­paign to con­vince Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren to run for pres­id­ent in 2016 — re­leased a much-hyped poll. “Huge Open­ing for Eliza­beth War­ren in Iowa and New Hamp­shire,” a press re­lease from Demo­cracy for Amer­ica, one of the groups sup­port­ing Run War­ren Run, crowed.

And the res­ults of the poll, at first blush, are shock­ing: The pooled res­ults from Iowa and New Hamp­shire show 31 per­cent of re­spond­ents sup­port­ing War­ren in a Demo­crat­ic primary or caucus, versus just 26 per­cent sup­port­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton. Com­pare that res­ult with those of a Bloomberg Polit­ics poll re­leased earli­er this month, in which 56 per­cent of Demo­crat­ic primary voters said Clin­ton would be their first pick, over War­ren’s 15 per­cent.

What’s go­ing on here?

Like many seem­ingly crazy poll res­ults, it comes down to meth­od­o­logy. In this case, the Run War­ren Run poll in­cludes a string of ten lead­ing ques­tions that paint War­ren in an ex­ceed­ingly fa­vor­able light. Take the 16th ques­tion, which sounds like it was writ­ten in soft-fo­cus:

16. Eliza­beth War­ren says she grew up “on the ragged edge of the middle class.” After her dad suffered a heart at­tack and the bills piled up, she star­ted wait­ing tables at age 13. Her mom got a job at Sears, and War­ren says, “That min­im­um-wage job saved our home — and saved our fam­ily. … Sure, I worked hard, but I grew up in an Amer­ica that in­ves­ted in kids like me, an Amer­ica that built op­por­tun­it­ies for kids to com­pete in a chan­ging world, an Amer­ica where a jan­it­or’s kid could be­come a United States Sen­at­or. I be­lieve in that Amer­ica.” Is this a con­vin­cing reas­on to sup­port Sen. War­ren?

It’s not so sur­pris­ing, then, why so many re­spond­ents re­spon­ded fa­vor­ably to the idea of a War­ren pres­id­en­tial run: They were primed to do so. On top of the lead­ing ques­tions, the poll’s mar­gin of er­ror is 4.6 per­cent — mean­ing that the gap between Clin­ton and War­ren is still a neg­li­gible one.

The poll, which was ad­min­istered by the polling ser­vice YouGov, does ad­mit what it’s do­ing. On the sixth page of its polling memo, Run War­ren Run says the poll does not put can­did­ates on even foot­ing.

“We should note — this is not a so-called ‘clean’ head-to-head bal­lot ques­tion, as voters were provided pos­it­ive in­form­a­tion about War­ren but not oth­er po­ten­tial can­did­ates,” the memo reads. “It should not be read as re­flect­ing how Iow­ans or Gran­ite Staters would vote if the caucuses or primary were held today. Rather, it should be read as an in­dic­at­or that many voters in these states are ‘move­able,’ open to sup­port­ing Eliza­beth War­ren when they learn about her and like what she has to say.”

“The move­ment that we saw to­ward Eliza­beth War­ren once her mes­sage gets out there was in­cred­ibly im­press­ive,” Neil Sroka, a spokes­man for Demo­cracy for Amer­ica, told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “It was sur­pris­ing to us how mov­able voters were in New Hamp­shire and Iowa when they star­ted hear­ing about what Eliza­beth War­ren stands for, what her val­ues are, and what she would likely run on if she were a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate.”

Still, the way the poll has been mar­keted to polit­ic­al re­port­ers since its re­lease has been much less subtle.

“These poll res­ults prove that Sen­at­or War­ren, should she de­cide to enter the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race, would be a clear fa­vor­ite with voters on the crit­ic­al, in­come-in­equal­ity is­sues that will define the elec­tion,” Charles Cham­ber­lain, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Demo­cracy for Amer­ica, said in the poll’s ori­gin­al press re­lease.

Some polls are con­duc­ted with the in­ten­ded ef­fect of in­flat­ing the fa­vor­ab­il­ity of a group’s pre­ferred can­did­ate and gen­er­at­ing pos­it­ive head­lines about his or her mo­mentum in early primary states. This ap­pears to be one of those. Mis­lead­ing polling may gen­er­ate some pos­it­ive head­lines in the short term, but real­ity can quickly prick those in­flated hopes — just ask Eric Can­tor.

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