Poll numbers don’t always tell the whole story

Also: is it time to fire legislators too busy ‘on vacation’ to do their jobs?

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

TimesPoliticsUnusualAh, the sweet smell of late summer. Fruits ripening, corn growing, backyard grills fired up, maybe even a whiff of chlorine from the pool all in the air.

Also floating in the air: polling data, much of which might leave folks scratching their heads a bit.

You may have seen this week’s CBS News/You Gov poll suggesting that the gubernatorial battle of the Toms — Gov. Tom Corbett and Tom Wolf has closed to within nine points. In the sixth Congressional District, Democrat Manan Trivedi released an internal poll suggesting he trails Republican Ryan Costello by a mere five points.

Shocking! Stunning! Game changers!

Uh, nope.

First off, when it comes to polling, single poll results that are in variance with the bulk of other polling are called “outliers.” These two would likely fall into that category.

Trivedi’s poll was an internal poll, one used by the campaign to measure where it stands.

Unfortunately, in my experience as a candidate and campaign manager, you almost always get some bias — usually unintentional — toward the candidate taking the poll. This is similar to the “house effect” noted with some polling companies that tend to have a consistent “lean” toward one party or the other.

Similarly, Costello’s internals show a 13-point race, I’m told.

So, best guess, right now, figure it to be a an 8-10 point race, which is about right based on the district, history, and the demographics of the Sixth. The two factors that will determine whether the polling opens or tightens will be money and national politics. The former matters in the expensive Philly TV market where commercials tend to define congressional candidates, for the good and bad. Costello has and will have a lot more than Trivedi.

The latter, though, may well determine the final outcome, as events could drive different groups to the polls in numbers not well reflected by the “likely voter” model being used to parse the polling numbers.

The Corbett-Wolf poll is another matter. There are a lot of questions about the validity of the You Gov polling model (and yes, I was one of the respondents) and how the self-selection issue is accounted for in the final numbers.

And while I absolutely expect the numbers to tighten — and have said so for months — I would take these numbers with a grain of salt big enough to crush a Kia Soul (and no, that’s not a cheap plug for the local “crazy” Kia dealer, foolishly he doesn’t advertise here, but for my daughter Janet who hates the boxy, hampster-infested cars with a deep, deep passion).

But setting aside the fact that the numbers are as suspect as a Kardashian marriage, showing Corbett with 33% support and Wolf with 42%, is there any reason for Corbett or Republicans to get excited?


Wolf’s numbers have been driven down — thanks to TV ads and Internet ads suggesting Wolf doesn’t pay taxes, doesn’t believe there’s a pension crisis, and a bevy of iffy to fictional claims — but we haven’t seen much in the way of an increase in support numbers for Corbett.

And yes, before Republicans blow a gasket: the claims that Corbett cut education funding by $1 billion are equally fictional, as state spending on education since Corbett took office is actually up marginally. The $1 billion was federal stimulus money — the smart districts used the extra cash on one-time expenses, not operations. Corbett had no way to replace the federal money when it dried up — so any blame falls on both local Republican Congress members and President Barack Obama, but not the governor.

The CBS News/You Gov poll, if taken as valid, mostly suggests that some voters have been pushed back into the undecided ranks — meaning those undecideds are about 25% of voters. In most places, undecideds tend to break for the challenger by a 2-1 margin, give or take, which would be good news for Wolf.

But this is change-resistant Pennsylvania, which is notorious for not voting out incumbents. So, let’s say 15 points of the undecided break for Corbett — some 60%, which is probably a wildly optimistic number — that still gives Wolf a 52-48 win in November. More realistically, those undecideds split evenly or slightly toward Wolf, which makes the final margin more like 55-45.

And that assumes these numbers are right, which is a big leap. More likely, the race is even less close right now, meaning a 12- or 14-point final margin isn’t unrealistic unless there is a major change in the dynamic of the race.

And if the late polling suggests those sort of numbers, we could see a big hit on GOP turnout, rippling across congressional, state Senate and State Representative races, especially here in hard-fought Chester County.

You can expect this drama to play out right in front of you — both sides acknowledge this: if Corbett loses Chester County, he stands no chance to win statewide, especially as it seems like right now, Wolf will win Philadelphia by giant margins, and should win in Delaware and Montgomery counties. Corbett will need numbers — and a clear win — in Chester and Bucks to stay in the governor’s mansion.

* * *

The state House of Representatives was supposed to come back into session Monday to take up a proposed $2 a pack tax on cigarettes in Philadelphia to help close a $93 million budget deficit. But, apparently, a number of house members decided their vacation time was more important.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said it would be difficult for city schools to even open without the additional funds — and the best case scenario would have 40 kids in a classroom and some 1,300 layoffs of staff.

Let us set aside the sticky facts that the Philadelphia School District is being run by the state and has been for more than a decade and the state is directly responsible for any financial mess there — this isn’t some local school board run amuck, the buck stops with the state legislature and the governor’s mansion. But hey, inconvenient facts are so….well…inconvenient.

How about this though: Pennsylvania has some of the highest-paid legislators in the nation, who already basically work part time for full time pay.

Unfortunately, some Republican legislators don’t want to disrupt their vacations just to do their job, which is kind of pathetic.

I’d suggest a permanent vacation is in order for any legislator who balked at coming back into session Monday — folks, there has to be a fireable offense for these guys (if the pension mess, the midnight pay hike and the general disaster that is Pennsylvania isn’t quite enough for you) and if blatantly refusing to do their jobs (and frankly, if they want to vote the tax down, fine, but do your bloody job) doesn’t reach that threshold, what does?


And while I think the situation with the Philadelphia schools is an embarrassment — yet another sign that Pennsylvania doesn’t even aspire to third-world standards any more — worse, for those of us out here in suburbia: this is going to force litigation that will, mark my words, shred education funding funding for wealthy suburban districts.

If the legislature can’t deal with the Philadelphia situation — not to mention other urban districts around the state — the courts will. And to be blunt, rich suburban folks won’t like the outcome, which may lead to some of your tax money going out of district, to provide “equal access” to education in poorer areas.

It’s happened in other states and it can and will happen here if legislators don’t act, and act soon. The case is already in the process of being filed, so it’s not an empty threat.

The status quo is hanging by a thread — and if you think this is just some Philadelphia issue, you’d be badly mistaken. You need to make sure your local legislator is equally aware of the stakes here and that he or she is ready to put away the sunscreen and get back to work in Harrisburg.

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