The polls: Voters knew what they didn't want SOCIAL SCIENCE

November 18, 1990|By Herbert C. Smith and M. William Salganik

Brad Coker calls it "the Paul Bunyan story" -- a feat of election polling that has assumed the outsized proportions of legend.

Democrat Elizabeth Bobo was expected to be re-elected as county executive in Howard County. Mr. Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Opinion Research of Columbia, did polling for Howard's Republicans and told Charles I. Ecker, Ms. Bobo's opponent, that he would win by 300 votes.

When the votes were finally counted, including the absentee ballots, Mr. Ecker won by 450 votes of 52,570 cast -- an "error" by Mr. Coker not of 3 percentage points (the margin of sampling error for the 1,039 interviews Mason-Dixon conducted) but of less than three-tenths of a percentage point.

Mr. Coker doesn't make such claims of precision. All he really knew, he said, was that the election would be extremely close (his last poll showed 46 percent for Ms. Bobo, 43 percent for Mr. Ecker, 11 percent undecided). The rest of the prediction was mostly guesswork and perhaps partly a desire to give his client good news.

Other pollsters, obviously, don't promise accuracy within three-tenths of a percentage point, either. But it is worth reviewing the performance of pre-election polls in Maryland. The accuracy of polls should be looked at because polls can have real consequences for how an election campaign develops.

Here is a look at how the polls performed in some of the key general election races in Maryland this year:


After early polls showed the ticket of Democratic incumbents William Donald Schaefer and Melvin A. Steinberg with huge leads (64 percent to 18 percent in a WBAL poll taken Sept. 13-18, and 69-18 in The Sun Poll taken Oct. 4-11), both The Sun and WBAL took no further statewide polls.

Mason-Dixon, polling for WMAR-TV, also showed a massive early lead (67-21 in a poll taken Aug. 31-Sept. 3), but kept polling long enough to show late gains by the Republican ticket of William S. and Lois Shepard. Their final statewide poll, taken Oct. 22-25, showed 59 percent for the Schaefer ticket and 30 percent for the Shepard ticket.

The final result: Mr. Schaefer, 60 percent; Mr. Shepard, 40 percent. If most of the undecided voters went to the Shepard ticket, the final poll by Mason-Dixon was on the money. "The undecided will break against an incumbent if his name identification [recognition by voters] is above 90 percent," Mr. Coker said.

Baltimore County executive

Conventional political wisdom was upset along with Democratic County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen, when Republican Roger B. Hayden surged to a victory by 62 percent to 38 percent.

While neither two Sun surveys nor a WBAL-TV poll forecast the dimensions of Mr. Rasmussen's crushing defeat, when the three surveys are examined in chronological order, the pro-Hayden, anti-Rasmussen trend lines are clear.

The first Sun Poll (Oct. 4-11) showed the incumbent with a significant lead (52-36) over Mr. Hayden. Two weeks later, the WBAL-TV poll reported a 3-point Hayden lead (44-41). The final ++ Sun Poll (Oct. 30-Nov. 2) had Mr. Rasmussen edging Mr. Hayden 41 percent to 39 percent.

Undecideds in the race had grown from 12 percent in early October to 20 percent by election eve. Again, as in the Schaefer-Shepard matchup, the undecideds broke decisively for Mr. Hayden in the final days, producing the stunning upset.

1st Congressional District

Surveys taken in the 1st Congressional District (Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland and part of Harford County) showed a pattern similar to Baltimore County. Again, the Democratic incumbent, Representative Roy P. Dyson, began the final weeks with an electoral edge only to lose his lead as Republican challenger Wayne T. Gilchrest's campaign kicked in.

The first Sun Poll (Oct 4-11) showed Mr. Dyson with a 6-point lead (48-42). However, by mid-October, Mr. Gilchrest was ahead. The WBAL-TV survey (Oct. 15-17) had Mr. Gilchrest moving past Mr. Dyson (47-40). The final Sun Poll (Oct. 28-Nov. 1) confirmed that, with Mr. Gilchrest at 45 percent, Mr. Dyson at 39 percent, and 16 percent of those polled undecided.

Here, again, the undecided voters went disproportionately for the challenger, providing an Election Day victory of 57 percent to 43 percent.

Anne Arundel executive

Polls consistently showed Democrat Theodore J. Sophocleus with smallish leads over Republican Robert R. Neall.

Mason-Dixon, polling for the Maryland State Teachers Association, had a 38-34 percent Sophocleus lead Oct. 8-10. The Sun Poll had Mr. Sophocleus ahead by 45-41 percent Oct. 4-11 and by 42-36 percent Oct. 29-Nov. 2. (In all cases, the remaining respondents were undecided.)

The pre-election polls were not the only surveys that failed to predict Mr. Neall's victory, by 51 percent to 49 percent. WBAL's exit polls showed Mr. Sophocleus ahead -- and so did Mr. Neall's exit polls.

The most likely explanation for the discrepancy between the polls and the election returns is a higher-than-expected turnout in the southern part of the county, which provided Mr. Neall's base of support.

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