The Great Poll Scam, Part II: Polling Minnesota

My interest in the Minnesota Poll as an individual institution started right about the time I started this blog, six or eight years ago.

Now bear in mind that I, Mitch Berg, have made skepticism of the media at least a hobby, if not a fringey living, since 1986.  I have believed that the media needed to be distrusted and then verified for pretty much my entire adult life.

And yet until very recently, I maintained, if not a naive faith in the public opinion polling about elections, at least a detached sense that, somehow or other, they all evened out.   It was the same naivete that we all have about where babies and Christmas presents come from when we’re nine, or how entitlements get paid for when we’re 18 (50 for Minnesota government employees), or how sausage and bacon are made.

Ignorance is, indeed, bliss.

The scales started falling from my eyes when I started reading PowerLine.  Scott Johnson has been keeping his eye of the MNPoll for most of a decade, now; he’s led the pack of Minnesota bloggers in documenting the poll’s abuses.

And in reading the history of conservative criticism of the Minnesota Poll, I started wondering – what is the historical context?

There’s more of it than I’d figured.

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The Star Tribune started running public opinion polling of the Minnesota electorate in 1944.  It’s polled Minnesotans over a variety of topics, but the marquee subjects are always the big three elections – State Governor, US Senate and Presidential elections.

Now, if you’ve lived in Minnesota in the past fifty years or so (I go back half of that time – I moved here in ’85), it’s hard to believe that Minnesota used to be a largely Republican state.  Of course, the Republicans we had up until very recently were the type that make the likes of Lori Sturdevant grunt with approval – “progressive” Republicans like Elmer Anderson and Wheelock Whitney and the like.

I bring this up to note that while the various parties have changed – Republicans used to be “progressive”, Democrats used to be “America First” – that Minnesota party politics for the past 66 years have been a little more evenly-matched than current political consciousness – shaped as its been by Humphrey and Mondale and “Minnesota Miracle” and Wellstone and Carlson – might make you believe.

Now, if you look at the Minnesota Poll’s statistics for the past 66 years – going back to the 1944 elections, for Governor, Senator and President – the Minnesota Poll is actually fairly even.  In that time, Republicans have gotten an average of 46.85 percent of the vote for all those offices, to 49.37% for DFLers.  During that time, the Minnesota Poll’s “election eve” predictions have averaged 44.1% for Republicans, and 46.77% for Democrats.  That means that over history, the big final Minnesota Poll has shown Republicans doing 2.75 points worse than they turned out, with DFLers coming in 2.59 points worse than they finally turned out.  The results have tended to be, over the course of 66 years, infinitesimally more accurate – .16% – for Democrats.  It’s insignificant, truly.

Indeed, when you go through the numbers from the forties and the fifties, you can see some blogger back in 1958 decrying two things – the lack of an internet to blog on, and a serious pro-Republican bias in the Minnesota poll; in polls run before 1960, the Minnesota poll predicted Republicans would get 51.58, while GOP candidates for the big three offices actually got 50.32% of the vote – the poll overestimated Republicans by an average of 1.26%.  The DFL got an average of 49.73% of the vote during those years, while the Minnesota Poll had them at an average of 43.51% -  which is 6.22% lower than they actually turned out doing (although this number gets inflated by a truly horrible performance in the 1948 Gubernatorial election, where the MNPoll had John Halstead at 25% in their pre-election poll; he ended up losing, but with 45%. That had to be frustrating).  In all, before 1960, the Strib “Minnesota Poll”‘s pre-election poll overestimated the GOP’s performance compared to the DFL’s in 76% of elections; the poll’s overestimates favored the GOP by an average of almost 7.5%.

By the mid-sixties, of course, Minnesota politics changed drastically; by the middle of the decade, the golden age of “progressive” politics and the DFL, led by the likes of Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter Mondale for the DFL, and Elmer Anderson for the GOP, left Minnesota a very different state.  During those years – from about 1966, after Barry Goldwater re-introduced a partisan divide to national politics for the first time, really, since the war – the DFL won the average vote 50.97 to 46.61.  The Minnesota Poll predicted DFL victories, on average, of 49.62 to 42.79; they underreported the final support for Republicans by an average of 3.83%, and DFLers by 1.35%, an average skew of almost 2.5% in favor of the DFL.

But if you look at the actual elections covered in those years – from 1966 to 1990, the “Golden Age of the DFL” – of the 21 contests for President, Governor and Senator, the Minnesota Poll showed the Democrat doing better than they turned out doing by a greater margin than the Republican in 13 of the elections, and inflating the GOP candidates results in eight.  The 1980 Presidential election skewed things a bit – the MNPoll underestimated Jimmy Carter’s performance by 12.5% (Carter got 46.5%, while the MNPoll predicted 34%; it also overestimated Reagan’s performance by a little over a point, leading to one of the biggest pro-Republican skews in the recent history of the Minnesota Poll).

Overall, for the entire history of the Minnesota Poll from 1944 to 1986, the Minnesota Poll showed the public voting, on election eve, for the DFL by a 48.25% to 46.34% average margin; the actual elections favored the DFL to 51.10 47.81; the poll underpolled Republicans by a 1.47% average, and Democrats by an average of 2.85%.  Of the 41 total contests in that time, the DFL was overestimated by a greater margin than the GOP in 44% of the polls – again, not a really significant number.

In other words, the poll’s statistical vicissitudes were fairly balanced through its first 42 years.

But in 1987, the Strib hired Rob Daves to run the Minnesota Poll.

And things would change.

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The series so far:

Monday, 11/8: Introduction.

Wednesday, 11/10: Polling Minnesota - The sixty-six year history of the Strib’s Minnesota Poll. It offers some surprises.

Friday, 11/12: Daves, Goliath:  Rob Daves ran the Minnesota Poll from 1987 ’til 2007.  And the statistics during that era have a certain…consistency?

Monday, 11/15: Hubert, You Magnificent Bastard, I Read Your Numbers!:  The Humphrey Institute has been polling Minnesota for six years, now.  And the results are…interesting.

Wednesday, 11/17: Close Shaves: Close races are the most interesting.  For everyone.  Including you, if you’re reading this series.

Friday, 11/19: The Hay They Make: So what does the media and the Twin Cities political establishment do with these numbers?

Monday, 11/22: A Million’s A Crowd:  Attention, statisticians:  Raw data!  Suitable for cloudsourcing!

MN Poll Result: 42.79 Elecction Result;: 46.61 Difference: -3.83   MN Poll Result: 49.62 Elecction Result;: 50.97 Difference: -1.35   Total/Lean DFL 21.00 13.00 0.62 Average Skew: 2.48

10 thoughts on “The Great Poll Scam, Part II: Polling Minnesota

  1. “…led by the likes of Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter Mondale for the DFL, and Wendell Anderson for the GOP…”

    Elmer?

    I know an Anderson is and Anderson is an Anderson but…

    I’d be more interested in the polling done earlier in the campaigns when those results are used strategically to attempt to demoralize the opposition and brace the faithful. It’s understood that biased polling can maintain a little credibility if they tighten up the results on “election eve” when many have made their decisions and they’re tired of hearing poll results. Then the post-mortem shows a much more accurate poll than the polls showing, for example, Dayton with a double-digit lead when everyone knew that was a sham.

  2. I met Gov. Elmer Anderson once, when my junior high class took a trip to St. Paul. He was shorter than I expected.

    And Wendy Anderson was a REPUBLICAN? I swear, I’d forgotten that completely.

  3. “and Wendell Anderson for the GOP,”

    Mitch – Wendy was the DFL gov who got on the cover of Time for the minnesota miracle and appointed himself a senate seat which led to the Minnesota Massacre.

    I think you mean Elmer Anderson.

  4. “and Wendell Anderson for the GOP,”

    Mitch – Wendy was the DFL gov who got on the cover of Time for the minnesota miracle and appointed himself a senate seat which led to the Minnesota Massacre.

    I think you mean Elmer Anderson.

    He was also a UMN regent who took a keen liking to some of the student rep to regents…

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