Cell-only users might show pollsters have wrong number

It must be the cell phone users. They’re elusive and hard for a political pollster to measure. Right?

Then again, it could be the Spanish speakers. Surely they don’t habla the language of the statewide survey. That must be it.

It can’t be the midterm blues, the brutal Nevada economy, the national GOP’s obsession with Harry Reid, and the Senate majority leader’s own unforced errors that have him scrambling against GOP challenger Sharron Angle.

While Democrats have been denying the undeniable, pollster Brad Coker has braced himself for the usual barrage of criticism. As the man behind Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, whose surveys have consistently shown Reid’s negatives at toxic levels and have raised questions about his re-election appeal in the year of the Tea Party, Coker is regularly ripped for failing to see the big picture. He’s accused of discounting the hard-to-measure Hispanic vote and is vilified for not including left-leaning, cell-phone-only users in his statewide polls, which have a 4-point margin of error.

Angle led Reid in Mason-Dixon’s last Review-Journal/8NewsNow-sponsored survey of the campaign, 49 percent to 45 percent with 3 percent undecided, 2 percent preferring None of These, and 1 point to others.

The potential magic of the Democrats’ Hispanic vote aside, Reid trailed Angle 55-38 percent among independents. That teapot whistle is loud, and the Latino community has always held great campaign potential, but independent voters are the prized players in Nevada.

Because pollsters survey by phone, and reaching most cell users means acquiring costly lists that can skew demographics and contain unseen bias, Mason-Dixon has been relying on land-line contacts in Nevada. This, Democratic Party critics contend, produces flawed results that favor Republicans. After all, no one is interviewing young, cell-only Democrats. It’s an argument favored by lefties Michael Moore and MoveOn.org.

Coker counters, “The problem with that argument is, it assumes that a 22-year-old who only has a cell phone and a 22-year-old who has access to a land line are going to differ politically in a large way.”

The pollster reminds me the surveys are demographically balanced by party, gender, age and geography. He’s confident his bases are covered. With Democrats in trouble throughout the country, he suspects their suspicions are grounded more in political panic than political science.

Accurately measuring the likely Latino vote is made challenging by the possibility of a language barrier, but Coker says Mason-Dixon employs Spanish-speaking interviewers. So, he believes, the survey keeps its precision within the margin of error.

I’m not as sure. I still think there’s room for a vote surge from Nevadans who don’t show up on even the most professional survey.

It’s not the poll that’s giving Reid fits, Coker asserts. As majority leader, Reid has had to argue for positions that put him at odds with some Nevadans, who face an economic and employment crisis.

The understated senator’s lack of pizzazz makes him a tougher sell.

“What Reid is trying to do is replicate the Obama model, to go after these groups of people who don’t traditionally show up and vote: Hispanics, African-Americans, younger voters,” Coker says. “The problem is, he doesn’t have the charisma of Obama. With Obama, they were showing up to vote for a rock star.” Given the traditionally smaller turnouts during midterm elections, “He’s really trying to drag people out to the polls who are hard to get out in the first place. And he’s trying to do it without the charisma advantage.

“I just don’t see kids at UNLV piling out of their dorm rooms to vote for Harry Reid.”

Of course, with a 4-point margin of error, Brad Coker could be wrong. Spanish-speaking, cell phone-using Democrats can prove him wrong.

But today is their last day to do that.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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