Pop quiz: If someone wanted to predict the outcome of this year’s race for New York’s First Congressional District, that person should employ opinion polls released by A) Democratic Representative Tim Bishop, B) Randy Altschuler, his Republican opponent, or C) None of the above.
Answers may vary.
“Our polls are accurate; theirs aren’t,” said Diana Weir, an Altschuler spokeswoman, in response to an Aug. 29 poll released by Mr. Bishop that reported a 14-point lead for the five-term congressman. “How does he release a poll that says he’s up double-digits, when the 2010 election results showed him ahead by less than a point? . . . What has he done? . . . It doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Conversely, the most recent poll released by the Altschuler campaign, on July 29, gave the conservative challenger a 4-point lead with a 3-point margin of error, and to that, Robert Pierce, a spokesman for the Bishop campaign said, “The firm that conducted Altschuler’s polling has an awful reputation; they use robocalls and we use real people.”
Whether automated telephone surveys are more reliable than those conducted by a person is uncertain. But what is apparent is that the companies that furnished each candidate’s polls have strong ties to that candidate’s respective political party: The Bishop campaign hired Global Strategy Group, a Democratic polling firm, whose slogan urges clients — such as United States Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Representative Gary Ackerman, and a laundry list of others — to “Campaign to Win.” Mr. Altschuler’s surveys, one of which reported a 14-point Obama deficit in this district, were conducted by Pulse Opinion Research, one of several companies owned by Scott Rasmussen, whose clients are predominantly Republican.
Because the calls are automated, anyone with a credit card can order a Pulse Opinion Research poll on a variety of subjects.
Mr. Bishop’s has recently faulted the opposition for failing to release polls overseen by McLaughlin and Associates, to whom Mr. Altschuler paid over $50,000 for polling since July 2011, including nearly $17,000 for a survey conducted in April this year. Mr. Altschuler has not released that data.
“Polls are to be trusted as much as any piece of propaganda put out by a campaign,” said Patrick Murray, director of polling at Monmouth University in New Jersey, “. . . with a grain of salt.” According to Mr. Murray, the wording of polling questions can manipulate the results.
Mr. Bishop’s survey back in March showed him up by 17 points. Another poll, by Garin-Hart-Yang, a Democratic “super PAC,” showed Mr. Bishop in a landslide 24-point lead just before Altschuler’s poll was released in late July.
A poll that shows one candidate in the lead by a wide margin dissuades the other side’s financial contributors, Mr. Murray said, because it creates the impression that their candidate cannot win. “Poll results released by political candidates are geared toward potential donors, not typical voters,” Mr. Murray said. “Early money is important to get a campaign off the ground, and many polls are nothing more than a donation pitch in disguise.”
Polls also act as a barometer that tells candidates which issues are important to their constituents. According to both candidates’ data, jobs and the economy on Long Island are of utmost concern to residents, and the candidates have paid requisite attention to that issue.
“Polls are a snapshot in time,” said Ms. Weir, who chuckled when told that Mr. Altschuler has more than 3,000 more “likes” on Facebook than Mr. Bishop. “What really counts is what will happen in the voting booth.”
In a district that has switched parties numerous times since 1951, and even had a congressman, Michael Forbes, who switched from Republican to Democratic enrollment while in office, it is practically impossible to say who will win. And last time around, Mr. Altschuler didn’t concede the 2010 race until 38 days after the election. With nearly 200,000 people casting ballots, he lost the race by just 593 votes.
If Mr. Bishop wins, the result will likely be attributed to increased Democratic turnout. “There will definitely be a different electorate than there was in 2010 — a really bad year for Demoºcrats,” Mr. Pierce said. “More Democrats will show up because the base is pumped, this is a big-ticket election, and people are determined to keep Congress out of Tea Party hands.”
On the other hand, the Independence Party endorsed Mr. Bishop in 2010, which earned him 7,370 votes. And this year, it is backing Mr. Altschuler.
Voters will have a chance to hear the candidates debate the issues, not the polls, for the first time on Sept. 24, when the Hampton Bays Civic Association hosts a candidate debate at the Hampton Bays Senior Center.