Politics & Other Mistakes: Polling geeks

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Interested in some oceanfront property in Millinocket?

Maybe a swanky condo in Misery Gore?

Or a poll that shows Democratic challenger Sara Gideon beating Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins by 9 percentage points?

My advice is to go with the condo. Nice view of the pit where they mine the misery.

But this being a political column (sorta), I suppose we should focus on that poll. (If you’re really interested in property in Misery Gore, go to my other column, Real Estate Scams & Other Mistakes.)

There are many good reasons to be suspicious of this poll, not the least of which is that Ethan Strimling has something to do with it.

Strimling, the former Portland mayor and state senator, now heads something called “Swing Hard. Run Fast. Turn Left,” a name he seems to have appropriated from a sportswear company. The purpose of this group (the word “group” is problematic, since it’s only member seems to be Strimling) is unclear, as it has no website and hasn’t registered as a political action committee. It does, however, share an email address and mailing lists with several political organizations run by Steven Biel, a close ally of Strimling’s.

What is known is that SHRFTL commissioned that Senate poll. Strimling, in his weekly Bangor Daily News column, described it as “a joint left/right partnership.” The right part of that partnership is something called Victory Geek, which, according to Strimling is “a nonpartisan data and telecom provider with mostly conservative clients.”

Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog, which rates virtually every polling firm in the country, doesn’t list Victory Geek. Three Maine political insiders I spoke with had never heard of it. The only online references I could find link it to Liberty Outdoor Media (not to be confused with the conglomerate that owns the Atlanta Braves baseball team, satellite broadcaster Sirius XM, and numerous other enterprises). Liberty Outdoor is an Illinois billboard company that also offers self-storage and, oddly enough, political polling. Its total output seems to be three small surveys for local candidates in its home state. Until now.

Even without all that weirdness, the poll itself is still, well, weird. It shows Collins losing to Gideon 51 percent to 42 percent with just 7 percent undecided. The margin of error is 4.32 percent.

For an incumbent senator, those are disastrous figures, but it gets worse. Victory Geek claims Collins is trailing Gideon in the conservative 2nd Congressional District by 12 points. Collins had previously owned that territory, swamping all comers on her home turf. Gideon’s margin in northern Maine is all the odder, given that she leads Collins by just 7 points in the liberal 1st Congressional District.

Something is wrong here.

First, the poll severely underrepresents independent voters, who comprise the largest bloc in the state at 37 percent. But independents account for only 26 percent of poll respondents. Collins has always done extremely well among voters who don’t belong to a political party. It also oversamples Democrats by a lot and Republicans by a little.

Victory Geek didn’t release detailed information on geographical samplings, but I’m guessing from what’s available that the pollsters may have surveyed considerably more residents of the 1st District than the 2nd. That could have added a bit of a liberal cushion to the final figures.

That impression is reinforced by Victory Geek’s claim that Collins would also lose to Democratic also-ran Betsy Sweet by a single point (well within the poll’s margin of error), even though Sweet’s underfinanced campaign has garnered just 17 percent support in the Democratic primary portion of the poll. Sweet’s strength is mostly concentrated in southern Maine.

The Collins campaign released this statement on the Victory Geek poll: “The release of this poll was a coordinated hit job. The polling firm is unknown, and the party that commissioned it has a history of underhanded tactics. Legitimate news organizations should check the credentials of the polling company and the commissioning organization before publishing such an obvious piece of political propaganda.”

Strimling might consider renaming his latest enterprise “Swing Wildly. Run Randomly. Turn Any Way You Think Might Generate Publicity.”

If that doesn’t work, maybe he could try condo sales in Misery Gore.

Geeks, freaks, and normal people can email me at [email protected].

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