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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Political market research — Can it be trusted?

Published: Sunday, Aug. 3 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Republican Mia Love, left, and Democrat Doug Owens shake hands after a debate in Salt Lake City. Front-runner congressional candidate Love has gained even more ground on her Democratic challenger over the past three months, raising an average of about five times as much money as Doug Owens every day.

(Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

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Last week, the Doug Owens congressional campaign released an Owens-commissioned survey of 400 voters showing him only nine points behind Mia Love. Many politicos were shocked, as GOP candidate Love is thought to be cruising to certain victory. The survey generated the usual debate about the credibility of polling. We explore this and other issues in the ever-changing world of political market research.

Is the race for the Fourth Congressional District close as the Owens poll indicates with him at 41 percent and Love 50 percent?

Pignanelli: "Polls? Nah ... they're for strippers and cross country skiers." — Sarah Palin Since the days of the ancient Greeks exercising democracy through marking their choices on pottery shards, candidates attempt to influence elections through demonstrations of their popularity. This is an old and often essential tactic utilized by Owens, who needed to do something. For many months, political observers could not detect any momentum against the well-oiled Love machine and were writing the Owens political obituary. Then just over 90 days from Election Day, Owens shifted campaign managers (never, ever a good sign). So regardless of any methodological questions, releasing the poll boosted the energy for Owens. Arguments over “likely voters” are better than an early postmortem. The 2014 election in Utah may be the most boring in generations, so politicos are grateful to Owens for generating some interesting elements.

Of course, Love Campaign manager David Hansen has been active in creating doubts about the credibility of the poll among the media and political illuminati. But both camps will use the poll for fundraising. A detail from the poll is important — 75 percent of respondents claim to know nothing about Owens. If Owens does not establish an identity among voters in the near future, Hansen will be more than happy to provide one for him.

Webb: Owens’ support is rather high, given that he is generally unknown out there. Owens’ lack of visibility means he can define himself positively, or Love can define him negatively — and Love has a lot more money. Owens will have a difficult time as voters begin to identify him more with the Democratic Party and the Obama administration.

On the other hand, I believe the poll is accurate in indicating that Love has relatively high negatives, and voters worry about her strength and capacity. I don’t expect Love to coast to victory without breaking a sweat. She’s going to have to work for it and especially show she’s up to the job of representing Utah in Congress. She is attractive, historic and exciting. But questions linger about her substance.

This would be a good race for Utah voters to demand that the candidates offer realistic solutions to the nation’s problems and not just toss out ideological red meat to the base. Let’s see some real proposals — that have a chance to pass Congress and be signed by the president, that incorporate compromise — regarding immigration reform, realistic entitlement and debt reform, transportation funding, health care reform, pro-growth tax reform and energy policy.

I want to vote for candidates who pledge to make progress on the nation’s problems, not keep kicking the can down the road.

Pollsters and their methodologies have been the subject of intense scrutiny both nationally and locally (i.e. polling for Romney, Matheson, Cantor and possibly now Owens). Why?

Pignanelli: Many pollsters, and the politician that hire them, fall in love with the methodologies they use in order to produce the results they like. By doing so, they usually ignore demographic and technology shifts. This is what happened to Romney and Cantor, whose voter surveys were so wide from reality. Utah's preeminent pollster Dan Jones is nationally recognized for his strict adherence to the science and not the desires of his clients. Respected pollsters like Jones constantly question the methodology they use and seek to adapt to the times.

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