How Is the Rasmussen Poll Like a Hostess Twinkie?

Breaking News roils Massachusetts senate race: Rasmussen gets free publicity!

That’s what I take away from yesterday’s nearly substance-free Rasmussen Poll release on the Warren-Brown horse race.

I’m no expert on the business model of polling firms like Rasmussen (or really on the scholarship of survey research) but yesterday’s release gained Rasmussen a lot of free media publicity, including interviews with firm head Scott Rasmussen. So I went to the Rasmussen web site to see what the excitement is about. There is a brief article on the horse race findings. There is a link to the three – yes, three – questions asked (now perhaps they do a full battery of questions and the full poll is available to subscribers? Someone more knowledgeable please fill me in on this). The questions were Brown-Warren horse race, Brown-Warren favorability, and Deval Patrick job approval.

Some breathless media reports and tweets went something like this: ‘Rasmussen Poll finds Brown leads Warren by 5! In first poll since contraceptive controversy!’ But there is no question about contraceptives and the Methodology link states “Margin of Sampling Error, +/- 4.5 percentage points with a 95% level of confidence.” In other words, ‘This just in: the race is tied!’.

Rasmussen is one of four polls released in the last week – and this is only February-March. There was a Suffolk University/7News poll; a MassInc/WBUR poll. And the fourth entry, also this week, is from MassInsight.  According to news reports MassInsight Global Partnership sent a poll to their subscribers that has Brown up by ten points; but unless you are a subscriber you get all sizzle, no steak.

I’ve previously remarked that publicity gambits like those of the MassInsight and Rasmussen “polls” should come with the disclaimer I saw on the football cards I bet on as a kid: “for entertainment purposes only.”  But I have argued more seriously in CommonwealthMagazine that the Rasmussen poll that showed Brown behind only nine points to Martha Coakley in 2010 helped create a dynamic in that race. (MassLive and Western New England College will be dribbling out their own poll this weekend; heaven help us.)

I’ve had some suggestions for Suffolk/7News and for MassInc/WBUR. I think they could ask demographic questions like religion, income, and education that would be very telling. They could ask some more issue questions, at least the standard ‘what do you see as the most important issue facing the commonwealth?’

But Suffolk and MassInc and their media partners release their entire polls. If you ask “where’s the beef” in either of these polls, there is plenty of beef and even some filet mignon.

Rasmussen is more like a Hostess Twinkie without the filling.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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