Same day different numbers

Just as no one would plunk down money on the ponies without checking the odds in the Daily Racing Form, political junkies hunger for those first pre-election polls to see how a new race is shaping up. But what’s a political handicapper to do when the first peeks at the pack send decidedly mixed messages? That’s just what happened when, on the same Sunday in early June, The Boston Globe and Boston Herald both came out with early polls on the race to succeed Joe Moakley in the 9th Congressional District.

According to the Globe survey of 400 likely Democratic voters in the district, the race was beginning as a three-way statistical dead heat between Max Kennedy, state Sen. Stephen Lynch of South Boston, and state Sen. Brian Joyce of Milton. The poll–published just one day before Kennedy abruptly pulled the plug on his wobbly candidacy–had the son of the late Robert F. Kennedy in the lead with 22 percent, followed by Lynch with 20 percent and Joyce with 18 percent.

But all three numbers were well within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points, making the nascent race a dead heat. (State Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton trailed at 9 percent, while 29 percent of those surveyed were undecided.) NO ROMP AHEAD FOR KENNEDY, POLL HINTS, read the Globe headline, capturing the surprise of some observers that his famous name hadn’t spotted Kennedy a big early lead.

The Herald numbers–and story–painted a very different picture. MAX K TRAILS SOUTHIE’S LYNCH IN 9TH RACE, read the front-page headline on the findings from the newspaper’s poll of 404 likely Democratic voters. The Herald cast a wider net than the Globe, including in their survey the names of three additional political figures whose names had been floated in the early going. Saying their poll showed Kennedy to be a “decided underdog,” the Herald reported that Lynch was well ahead of the field with 28 percent. Kennedy was second with 19 percent, followed by former Boston mayor Ray Flynn with 10 percent, Joyce with 9 percent, Pacheco with 6 percent, former state senator Joe Timilty with 6 percent, Boston City Councilor Steve Murphy with 1 percent, and 21 percent undecided.

How could two polls conducted at the same time produce such disparate results? Gerry Chervinksy, of KRC Communications Research, who conducted the Globe poll, says the numbers are not as different as they appear. Given the 5 percentage point margin of error in both polls, Chervinksy says the Herald number for Lynch, for example, could be as low as 23 percent, while the Globe poll leaves open the possibility that Lynch’s strength is as high as 25 percent.

Still, Chervinksy concedes that it is only at the edges of the margins of error that the two polls are statistically compatible with each other. It is far more likely, he says, that the polls sampled differing proportions of voters in different areas of the district. With his poll showing Joyce’s strength to be twice what it was in the Herald poll, Chervinksy says, “I can guarantee you right now that I have more people from [Joyce’s senate] district in my sample than the Herald does.”

There’s no way to know for sure. The Herald’s pollster, R. Kelly Myers, of RKM Research and Communications, says he gets his sample by selecting phone numbers at random from a list of 9th District households. Chervinksy does likewise, but then he compares the geographic distribution of respondents with voting returns from a previous election. If there are marked disparities, he’ll weight the findings in accordance with past turnout numbers. In this poll, though, he says he found no need to adjust the numbers, based on the 1996 state primary he used for comparison.

But perhaps he should have. The race that functioned as his benchmark happens to be one in which Milton’s share of the vote in the 9th District was three times greater than it was in the primary two years earlier. In 1996, Milton turnout swelled due to the bruising battle between Joyce and the longtime Milton state representative he defeated to win the Democratic primary for the House seat.

But if Chervinsky’s polling method might have boosted Joyce’s showing in the Globe poll, there is no ready explanation for Lynch’s nine-point lead in the Herald’s. Myers notes that his survey tested more prospective candidates, but that doesn’t explain why Lynch would poll higher in a wider field, especially when one of the alternative choices–Ray Flynn–hails from his own neighborhood.

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

What the numbers may ultimately add up to is simply another reason not to place too big a bet on these snapshots of voter support, especially early in a campaign when the electorate is not yet focused and the final field not yet set. In that context, even the pollsters seem willing to downplay their own handiwork.

Asking voters at the outset of a race about a large number of people “who may or may not run,” Myers says, “by the very nature of the poll, it is somewhat speculative.” Adds Chervinsky, “I think people get too horse-race crazy.” And that’s straight from the horse’s mouth.