Why Pollsters Were Wrong On Alaska

Less than a month ago, Alaska’s Ivan Moore poll showed that among likely Republican voters, Sen. Lisa Murkowski led conservative primary challenger Joe Miller by a margin of 61.8% to 29.6% statewide. The campaign of local magistrate and Desert Storm veteran Miller fired back that the poll was “garbage,” and “bogus.”

Miller is now on the verge of pulling what could easily be dubbed the biggest upset of the year, coming out of nowhere (54% of GOP respondents had not heard of Miller, according to the Moore survey) the insurgent conservative led Murkowski by about 2,300 votes out of nearly 90,000 cast. With nearly 13,000 absentee votes remaining to be counted, the Miller campaign was “cautiously optimistic” about a triumphant outcome.

So Ivan Moore and about every other pollster who surveyed the Land of the Midnight Sun on its Senate primary were wrong. Team Miller was right.

Several Republican pollsters and political operatives who talked to HUMAN EVENTS agreed that, when it comes to a substantive conservative challenger and a more moderate “establishment” Republican, there is almost always a late surge among the right-of-center base. In addition, there is always a late-breaking group that comes over to a conservative if he and she demonstrates a chance at winning.

Coupled with the political nature of Alaska and the difficulty in accurately polling the sprawling 49th state, it was difficult for even the most scientific survey to see the upset that was Miller’s.

“Very often, pollsters and political reporters under-estimate the role the conservative base plays in Republican primaries—and the way they will turn out for a ‘legitimate’ candidate,” said Gene Ulm of the Public Opinion Strategies firm, whose clients include Republican Senators Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and David Vitter (La.) and Nevada GOP Senate nominee Sharron Angle.

“Obviously, with his background as a veteran and magistrate, Miller was a legitimate challenger,” said Ulm. “And issues ranging from abortion to government spending are music to the base’s ears. He used them effectively against Murkowski.”

With support from Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and the state Tea Party movement, Miller rallied conservatives. Moreover, Ballot Measure 2, which would require parents to be notified before children 17 and younger received an abortion, was on the ballot and Miller himself told reporters:

“[The measure’s] supporters were our supporters, largely… I think the pro-life vote was important.” (Murkowski is pro-abortion).

Ulm added that there “is very often a huge percentage of voters who close for a candidate who is conservative and appears to be gaining momentum. This happened for [gubernatorial nominee] Nathan Deal in the narrow primary win he scored in Georgia over [the long-favored] Karen Handel. And it happened for Joe Miller.”

Ulm and others agreed that conservative hopefuls are benefiting from “the perfect storm” in 2010 that is leading primary voters to reject perceived “establishment” candidates in favor of perceived outsiders. Certainly Rick Scott’s dramatic upset of Bill McCollum in the Florida gubernatorial primary Tuesday is a case in point, as are the three contested U.S. House primaries in Arizona all won by conservatives who had neither held nor sought office before.

Veteran political consultant Bill Greener agreed that polling in some states was “the equivalent of taking polls in a foreign country” and it was very difficult to “get a grip on late-breaking developments.”

Greener, a partner in the Greener-Hook consulting firm, cited the 1998 midterm elections, in which “you couldn’t find Democrats until the day before who thought they would gain seats in the House or Senate and they gained in both.” That last-minute shift to the Democrats—only the third time in the 20th Century when the party in power gained ground in Congress in a midterm election—is generally credited to Republican disgust with their party acquiescing to Bill Clinton on the budget and thus turning out lower, while Democrats, who were angry at the mounting impeachment, rallied to their President.

Mike Collins, former spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee in 1994 when the GOP won the House after 40 years, recalled a special House election during the Clinton Administration, when conservative Ron Lewis won a seat in Kentucky that had been safely Democratic for more than a century.

“The day of the voting, you couldn’t find one in one hundred folks who would lay money on Ron Lewis,” said Collins, who was on the ground with the GOP hopeful in Kentucky. “But we saw the move toward him because his conservative message was motivating people, and especially doing so in the final days before the voting.”

“There’s something called magic out there—a certain mood that is difficult and even impossible for pollsters to discern at the end,” said Collins, “Lisa Murkowski just felt it.”