Election 2018FeaturedNews

TRAIL MIX | Positive polls like Jason Crow’s are often shrouded in mystery

Author: Ernest Luning - July 27, 2018 - Updated: August 10, 2018

Democrat Jason Crow appears in a 30-second TV ad released by his campaign on Monday, May 28, 2018. Crow is one of two Democrats running in a primary for the 6th Congressional District seat held by Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman. (Via YouTube)Democrat Jason Crow in a campaign TV ad. (Crow campaign via YouTube)

Jason Crow’s campaign is touting the results of a poll showing the Democrat with a slim lead over five-term Republican Mike Coffman in Colorado’s battleground 6th Congressional District.

The survey, commissioned by the Crow campaign, found the first-time candidate had the support of 47 percent of the district’s likely general election voters, edging out Coffman’s 45 percent — despite also finding that only 25 percent of those surveyed had even heard of Crow. After respondents hear what the pollsters described as a “short profile” on both candidates, Crow jumps to a 51-38 lead.

Unlike in March, however, when a Crow ally conducted a head-to-head poll measuring the Democrat’s chances against Coffman — that poll had Crow up by five points — the Crow campaign was happy to boast about the margin but didn’t give anyone more than a peek under the hood.

It’s become a standard practice for campaigns to point to poll results without letting anyone see the whole survey or examine detailed results, including cross-tabs that show how different groups answered the poll’s questions.

The Crow campaign sent out a press release announcing the candidate was polling two points ahead of Coffman, and fundraising emails from the campaign made sure potential donors got the news.

“HUGE news, everyone … Jason has a 2-point lead over Mike Coffman in the first general election poll of the race!” read one that also warned, “Make no mistake, Coffman and his GOP buddies won’t take this one lying down” before letting the recipient know the “ambitious goal” the candidate’s fundraising team had set in order to be able to respond.

The next day, Crow’s finance director sent out another email with a fancy graphic that showed a smiling Crow towering over a glum-looking Coffman (complete with an attractive photo of Crow and a monochromatic one of Coffman perhaps not as flattering). “Guys, I can’t get over this! I mean, just LOOK at this beautiful poll …” the email read.

“But after a quick celebration, we’ve got to buckle down and get right back to work,” the email continued. “This two-point lead is within the margin of error, meaning it could be a miscalculation, so it could disappear in the blink of an eye.”

Then came a request for more money in order to “drown out his attacks with our own message.”

The poll was conducted July 11-17 by Global Strategy Group, a leading national public affairs firm with offices in Denver that counts the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee among its clients. According to a polling memo, pollsters surveyed 506 likely midterm voters with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent.

That memo says the Crow campaign’s pollsters decided that the district’s midterm electorate would be made up of 35 percent Republicans, 34 percent Democrats and 31 percent unaffiliated voters.

Those are the same shares each party holds among registered voters, but it’s a much lower projected Republican turnout than has ever occurred in a non-presidential year, potentially returning results far more favorable to the Democrat. (In the last midterm election, for instance, voting Republicans led Democrats by 7.5 percentage points, not the single point the current poll predicts.)

The poll also surveyed 86 percent white voters, 10 percent black and Hispanic voters and 4 percent “other,” and broke down along a typical age distribution.

The Crow campaign wouldn’t release more details, including how the poll was conducted — by live callers, robocalls or online — or the poll’s script, which would reveal the order pollsters asked questions and how they were worded.

It’s only the latest in a series of favorable polls Colorado candidates have described without releasing in full this cycle, including one commissioned in May by Crow’s primary opponent, Levi Tillemann. That survey, Tillemann said, showed he had a better chance of unseating Coffman than Crow did — a result the clean energy expert said persuaded him to stay in the race, although he ultimately lost the primary by roughly two-to-one.

The Tillemann poll was conducted by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina outfit with a strong track record predicting the results in Colorado elections. But other than Tillemann’s supposed better chance against Coffman and Donald Trump’s unpopularity in the suburban district — he lost to Hillary Clinton by five points in the 6th CD, the same year Coffman won by a slightly larger margin — the campaign wouldn’t divulge the kind of details that are customary when releasing a poll.

In the days leading up to the June 26 primary, gubernatorial candidate Cary Kennedy’s campaign sent out fundraising emails that referenced an internal poll that showed her leading primary rival Jared Polis by four points — again, without any details. That came on the heels of another Kennedy fundraising appeal that pointed her supporters to yet another elusive poll that was rumored to show her in the lead.

When the votes were counted, Kennedy trailed Polis by about 20 points.

The Crow poll could be spot-on, or it could be wildly optimistic. Political consultants who reviewed the available data at Trail Mix’s request said there’s simply no way to know.

Coffman’s campaign manager, Tyler Sandberg, greeted the poll with derision on Twitter, pointing to polling in previous campaigns that has shown Coffman in jeopardy — often soon before he confounded expectations and went on to win by wide margins.

“Our motto has always been we run like we’re two points behind — so even if this poll is accurate, that won’t change how we approach this election,” Sandberg told Trail Mix.

“This race is going to be close,” he added, pointing to an extremely challenging environment for Republican candidates, including high enthusiasm among Democrats and Trump’s extremely low popularity.

“No one thinks it’s going to be a blowout. It’s going to be a barnburner.”

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.