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Pollsters throw predictions out the window in Alabama race

Who’s leading in Tuesday’s special Senate election in Alabama? The race is so peculiar and has so many variables that some pollsters are reluctant to say.

Rather than put out a single result that could be viewed as a projection in the race between Democrat Doug Jones and Republican Roy Moore, several polling outfits have simply released a number of different turnout models that explain how the composition of the electorate could swing the election. It’s an approach that they say best reflects the tremendous uncertainty surrounding a historically unusual, off-year, mid-December special election in a racially polarized state — where one candidate is an accused child molester.

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“That should have been the lesson we learned from 2016,” said Mark Blumenthal, the head of election polling at SurveyMonkey, which published results of a poll last week broken out according to 10 possible turnout models. “We should not be getting into the minutiae of what fraction of a percent the lead is for one candidate or the other.”

The results from the batch of final polls released by other, less reticent pollsters vary widely, ranging from Jones ahead by 10 percentage points to Moore holding a 9-point lead. The discrepancies boil down to subtle — but important — differences in polling methods.

In general, Jones runs stronger in more traditional polls conducted by live telephone interviewers calling both landlines and cell phones. Moore — who has been accused of pursuing teenage girls while in his 30s — leads in most polls conducted via automated telephone interviews or online, in which respondents don’t have to interact with another human being to complete the survey.

Roy Moore is pictured. | AP Photo

The most positive surveys for Moore mostly come from little-known polling firms that use experimental or less-accepted methodologies. That includes a new poll on Monday from the student-run Emerson College Polling Society in which Moore had a 9-point lead over Jones, 53 percent to 44 percent. The Emerson poll was conducted mostly via automated calls to landlines, with some respondents interviewed online to capture those without landlines. Some of the other automated polls don’t include cell-phone users at all, despite the fact that nearly half of Alabama adults live in households without a landline telephone.

On the other end of the spectrum is a new Fox News poll, conducted over virtually the same time period, that showed Jones leading by 10 points, 50 percent to 40 percent. That survey was conducted via phone calls to both landlines and cell phones.

The Fox News poll suggests pollsters who don’t call voters on cell phones may be missing Jones voters: The Democrat leads by a whopping 30 percentage points among cell-phone respondents in the survey.

On the other hand, Moore’s controversial candidacy may be more accurately captured by automated and online polls if voters are reluctant to admit support for the embattled GOP nominee in a live interview.

How the interviews are administered may end up being less revealing than which voters are being questioned.

Both SurveyMonkey and Monmouth University have polled the race — but rather than promote a topline, horse-race result that would dominate the coverage, both pollsters have instead released multiple turnout scenarios. SurveyMonkey offered 10 different models — and, in general, the less restrictive the criteria for those being polled, the better Jones did.

“In the data, we see evidence that this is going to be a more Democratic electorate than usual. The only question is how much,” said Blumenthal. “We know it is there. It’s just harder to calibrate in some kind of precise way who is going to vote.”

Similarly, Monmouth’s poll presented three different scenarios: a traditional midterm and off-year model, which gave Moore a 4-point lead; a tweaked version that accounts for increased Democratic enthusiasm seen in other elections this year, which showed a tied race; and an electorate that looks more like a presidential year, which showed Jones inching in front by 3 points.

Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said Monday that the survey suggests “a Moore victory is the more likely outcome,” though “there is still an opening for Jones.” But he also underscored the complex factors that make this contest so hard to poll.

“It’s worth keeping in mind that one difficulty in polling Alabama’s electorate is that very few, if any, pollsters have a track record there. Monmouth’s only prior foray into the state was during the 2016 presidential primary season,” said Murray. “This lack of familiarity is further compounded by the unpredictability of special elections, which is why we chose to describe the contours of this race rather than release a single estimate. Ultimately, that is what polling should be about anyway.”

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