And it's not justified. UNH is one of the worst pollsters out there.
That didn't stop traditional media reporters from breathlessly declaring that New Hampshire's Senate race, which Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has had well in hand for some time, was suddenly a "dead heat" when UNH released a new survey Thursday evening showing her up just 46-44 on Republican Scott Brown. (Remember him? The former Massachusetts senator who seems to have a hard time remembering he's carpetbagging to a different state?) And boy, check out UNH's trendlines!
barely even tried to offer an explanation for this huge shift, claiming that Shaheen's campaign was being "being weighed down by national politics, particularly the declining popularity of President Obama." Say what?
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But that's standard operating procedure at UNH, where inexplicable gyrations are forever ignored, brushed aside, and swept under the White Mountains. How could you possibly explain this impossible zig-zag in another race UNH has polled often, New Hampshire's 1st Congressional District?
(And as an aside, please note that we called out UNH earlier this year when Shea-Porter was riding high. Our objections to UNH have nothing to do with whether their polling is good for Democrats or bad for Democrats. UNH's suckiness is a serious problem no matter which party they seem to be favoring.)
One thing UNH's defenders like to point out is that the school's last polls of the cycle have often been closer to the mark, and that's true. For instance, they found Obama up 5 points in New Hampshire just before Election Day 2012; he won by 6. They also had Democrat Maggie Hassan winning the governor's race by 9; she prevailed by 12. But that hardly exonerates them. UNH's presidential polling was absolutely berserk over the final month of the race:
All that said, it's certainly possible that New Hampshire's Senate contest has tightened. But even if for some reason you trusted UNH completely, you should never rely on one single poll to form an opinion on a race. Certainly you'd never try to predict the outcome of a baseball game based solely on the score after one inning. It may well be that the next poll—the next 10 polls, even—all show the same thing as UNH has here. If that happens, then maybe UNH was right. It's certainly not impossible, after all. But it's also possible they'll just get lucky—or will be entirely wrong. And given how erratic they are, the latter is a safer bet.
So why does UNH produce such erratic polling? No one can truly say. There are lots of bad pollsters out there, whether in Republican boiler rooms or on leafy college campuses, though it probably doesn't help when your interviewers are bored undergrads trying to get through call lists as quickly as they can to earn school credit. Still, there should be much greater quality control at the top. No respectable outfit would release numbers than bounce around so comically without first trying to get to the bottom of the problem.
But that, of course, means recognizing you've got a problem in the first place. And when you're used to getting lots of attention, it must be awfully tempting to look the other way when you've got a headline-grabbing poll like UNH's latest. Beltway reporters still have a lot of affection for Scott Brown, whom they imagine actually lives up to the barn coat-wearing, regular-guy-Republican image he's always tried hard to project. And they also love a good horserace. Andy Smith gave 'em one, whether it exists or not.