Analysis

CA120: The mystery of the unknowns

Image by Tim Foster, Capitol Weekly

California’s 2014 primary election had its fair share of surprises, but none was greater than David Evans, a virtually unknown candidate for state controller who was just seven-tenths of 1 percent away from beating both Betty Yee and John Perez to capture the coveted second spot and move on to the general election.

This was a shock to political insiders, most of whom had never heard of him.  But to others, it was reminiscent of another unknown candidate, Brian Fitzgerald, who came within one percentage point of beating Mike Villines in the Republican primary for state insurance commissioner four years earlier.

One thing that contributes to this phenomenon is an inflated sense of self within the small cadre of political directors, consultants, media and pollsters who begin their analysis with their own highly-informed perceptions.

Both of these statewide primary races had something in common: The leading candidates were tapped by Sacramento insiders and the media as the ones to watch. But they had such little name recognition outside of Sacramento that they were nearly beaten by unknowns.

CA120_header4

The cliffhanger of an election, with weeks of extra ballot counting, caused heartburn within the offices of several Villines backers who had set aside, but not yet spent, millions of dollars to try and take on whichever Democrat came out of the primary.  They were shocked that Villines, a Republican Leader in the Legislature, would have any trouble winning his primary since, well, he was someone everyone in political circles knew.

In the controller’s race four years later, most pollsters and political pundits felt Fresno’s rising star, Ashley Swearengin would capture almost all of the Republican vote.

Her star was so bright that polling firms, ranging from the much-maligned Survey USA, to the highly respected Field Poll, listed the controller’s candidates in 2014 as follows:

–Ashley Swearengin (R)
–Betty Yee (D)
–John Perez (D)
–Another Candidate
–Undecided

This polling showed Swearengin as the outright leader, with Yee and Perez battling it out in a multi-million dollar duel for the second spot.  But all their dreams were nearly ended by a virtual nobody.

One thing that contributes to this phenomenon is an inflated sense of self within the small cadre of political directors, consultants, media and pollsters who begin their analysis with their own highly-informed perceptions – and struggle to put themselves into the mindset of real voters.

The vast majority of voters have never met a state legislator, or any elected official.

To the consultants: Trying to infer what regular voters will do poses a hurdle, when half of your Christmas card list is mainly current and former legislators.

Additionally, the standard means of contacting voters is telephone polling, which places a premium on shorter polls, fewer questions, and a reduction of the candidates to just the viable, well-funded and most likely to win.  Does your poll really have time to name all the unknown and perennial candidates that are likely to collect at the bottom of election night results?

This past week we went back into the field with a new online survey, split into two parts.

These two examples of past election prognostications almost gone horribly wrong led us to consider some of our own polling.

In an article last week, we reviewed the state of polling in the U.S. Senate race.  Now, we’ll consider the potential rise of Ron Unz, who’s last-minute entry to the contest made enough of a splash that he could be in a position to capture the second spot and deny Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez a spot in the runoff.

That race has a whopping 35 candidates.  There are so many candidates that election officials are even concerned about ballot confusion.  And we, like other pollsters, decided to narrow that field to just the five primary candidates, based on — you guessed it — insider notions of viability, funding, political bases, and setting aside all the nobodies and misfits that seem to litter the contest.

But, maybe we got it entirely wrong.

This past week we went back into the field with a new online survey, split into two parts.  One survey reduced the field to just the five candidates we have regularly seen in polls, and another included all 34 candidates.

In each survey, the candidates were randomized, so nobody got any advantage for being at the top or bottom of the survey. Because this is an online survey, rather than a phone poll, we could effectively list all the candidates in a manner consistent with how these candidates will be presented to voters.  This is an advantage of the online platform as nobody wants to conduct a poll where the respondent has to sit on the phone and listen to five minutes’ worth of candidate names, party identifications and ballot titles.

The results?  As can be seen below, the rank order of our five candidates stayed the same. But some lesser known candidates slipped into contention.  Overall, this experiment shows a potentially massive blind spot in how we perceive the upcoming race, and how we should view early polling in contests where few candidates have strong name recognition.

Traditional Polling – “Top 5” US Senate Candidates (N=900)

There is a primary election for U.S. Senate on the June Ballot. If the election were held today, do you think you would vote for:
KAMALA D. HARRIS Democratic, Attorney General of California 34.3%
LORETTA L. SANCHEZ Democratic, California Congresswoman 10.2%
RON UNZ Republican, Entrepreneur/Writer/Publisher 9.4%
DUF SUNDHEIM Republican, Small Businessman/Mediator 5.7%
THOMAS G. DEL BECCARO Republican, Business Attorney/Author 4.8%
Undecided 34.5%

 

Online Poll – All US Senate Candidates (N=750)

There is a primary election for U.S. Senate on the June Ballot. If the election were held today, do you think you would vote for:
KAMALA D. HARRIS Democratic, Attorney General of California 24.4%
LORETTA L. SANCHEZ Democratic, California Congresswoman 7.1%
PHIL WYMAN Republican, Attorney/Businessman/Rancher 3.2%
GREG CONLON Republican, Businessman/Attorney/CPA 2.6%
RON UNZ Republican, Entrepreneur/Writer/Publisher 2.1%
DUF SUNDHEIM Republican, Small Businessman/Mediator 1.2%
GAIL K. LIGHTFOOT Libertarian, Retired Registered Nurse 1.2%
THOMAS G. DEL BECCARO Republican, Business Attorney/Author 1.1%
GEORGE C. YANG Republican, Internet Startup CEO 1.0%
MASSIE MUNROE Democratic, Civil Environmental Engineer 0.8%
KAREN ROSEBERRY Republican, Educator 0.8%
TOM PALZER Republican 0.7%
PAMELA ELIZONDO Green, Environmental Healing Consultant 0.7%
VON HOUGO Republican, Teacher 0.6%
JERRY J. LAWS Republican 0.6%
HERBERT G. PETERS Democratic 0.4%
DON KRAMPE Republican, Retired 0.4%
MARK MATTHEW HERD Libertarian, Community Organizer 0.4%
EMORY RODGERS Democratic, Property Manager 0.3%
STEVE STOKES Democratic, Small Business Owner 0.3%
CLIVE GREY No Party Preference, Woodworker/Businessman/Entrepreneur 0.3%
LING LING SHI No Party Preference, Author 0.3%
CRISTINA GRAPPO Democratic 0.1%
JARRELL WILLIAMSON Republican, Health Care Lawyer 0.1%
MIKE BEITIKS No Party Preference, Stay-at-home Dad/Attorney 0.1%
TIM GILDERSLEEVE No Party Preference, Paratransit Operator 0.1%
JASON HANANIA No Party Preference, Attorney/Engineer 0.1%
JASON KRAUS No Party Preference, No Ballot Designation 0.1%
PAUL MERRITT No Party Preference, Self-Employed 0.1%
GAR MYERS No Party Preference, International Development Promoter 0.1%
JOHN THOMPSON PARKER Peace and Freedom, Neighborhood Council Member 0.0%
ELEANOR GARCÍA No Party Preference, Aerospace Factory Worker 0.0%
DON J. GRUNDMANN No Party Preference, Doctor of Chiropractic 0.0%
SCOTT A. VINEBERG No Party Preference, Social Entrepreneur 0.0%
Undecided 48.4%

Looking closer at the survey, we find that the difference between candidates in the long survey is fairly miniscule, well within the margin of error in a standard survey of this size.  The only two candidates that hold fairly steady through both surveys are Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez.  Beyond those two candidates, there really is no way to define a front runner, or who has a viable path to make it into the top two.

We’ve created a version of our polling survey which combines both the long and short form of the U.S. Senate race, and a number of other polling tidbits.  You can take the survey here.

This does not close the door on any of the Republican candidates making it into the November runoff.  We can see a bigger potential movement for each of them, because 60% of Republicans in the survey are still undecided, compared to just 30% among Democrats.

Consequently, a Republican candidate who gets on the most slate cards, hits voters with some inexpensive Facebook or online ads, or, basically, does anything at all to be separated from the field, has a good chance of eking a path to the November general election.

Simply having a ballot statement, for example, could benefit one of the candidates. Surprisingly, of the main Republican candidates, Sundheim is the only one who has one.  Conlon has a statement where he touts his credentials as a general election candidate in 2014 for state treasurer, in case you forgot (we did).

But the prize for most succinct ballot statement goes to Jason Hanania who’s simply reads “01100101” which is, of course, binary code for the letter “e.”

While many of these candidates seem to go out of their way to shun the mainstream, the idea that this is a race between known insider candidates is a fallacy.  This race for Republican votes is wide open, and perennial candidates like Wyman or Conlon, might actually be ahead of the insider picks.

Want to see how these surveys work?  We’ve created a version of our polling survey which combines both the long and short form of the U.S. Senate race, and a number of other polling tidbits.  You can take the survey here.

By inviting all Capitol Weekly readers we know this is absolutely not a valid voter survey, so, share with your friends, make outrageous choices, go back and change your answers.  We won’t care.  And, at the end you can see how your choices stack up against everyone else who took the survey!

Ed’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the creator of the CA120 column, which explores 2016 election issues in California. He is vice president of Political Data Inc., and owner of Redistricting Partners, a bipartisan political strategy and research company. 

 


  • Evelyn Critelli

    Fitzgerald’s mistake was that he thought the press would take an interest and cover his campaign. But he was no Trump. Instead, papers such as the Chronicle deliberately ignored him until it could report that “Mike” Fitzgerald had lost the long recount.

  • J9Studt

    One thing that contributes to this phenomenon is an inflated sense of self within the small cadre of political directors, consultants, media and pollsters who begin their analysis with their own highly-informed perceptions – and struggle to put themselves into the mindset of real voters. — One of the pollster’s jobs is to fight the purveyors of highly-informed perceptions.

  • http://twitter.com/Thogek Tom Kiefer

    The current running results of that all-candidates poll look very different from what’s published above — https://www.research.net/results/SM-YXLL9G7R/ – questions #15 and #22. Interesting…

    Then again, how accurate can it really be be overall with only ~140 responses so far.

    Still interesting.

    Looks like it’s still taking responses at https://www.research.net/r/CapitolWeeklySenate

  • Frontierland

    Unz has the best position on the number one issue facing White folks today.

    Open Boarders and Replacement-Level Non-White 3rd World Immigration and the Forced Assimilation of Whites into the Non-Homogeneous Races Culture.

    “Diversity” is a Code word for White Genocide.

    Some of His Articles:

    California’s Number One Problem: Illegal Immigration
    Does Race Exist? Do Hills Exist?
    Immigration, Republicans, and the End of White America

    Race/IQ

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