November 11, 2002
The Trouble With the Star-Trib Poll
by Scott W. Johnson

The Minneapolis Star Tribune dominates the newspaper market in the upper Midwest. As the region's leading newspaper, it vows to exercise the power it wields in covering the news with a sense of responsibility regardless of the paper's editorial views. In the election just concluded, however, the Star Tribune's Minnesota Poll failed the paper's most basic responsibility to its readers.

The Minnesota Poll has a long and inglorious history in Minnesota. Most famously, in 1978 the Minneapolis Tribune (as it then was) called all three major statewide races wrong by a wide margin on the basis of its Minnesota Poll. According to the Tribune on the Sunday before the election, the Democratic candidates were about to sweep the gubernatorial and two senate races.

Instead, 1978 was the year of the "Minnesota massacre." The Democrats were routed; Republican Al Quie was elected governor, and Republicans Dave Durenberger and Rudy Boschwitz were elected senators.

The Tribune immediately acknowledged the gravity of its errors and promised to set things right. In 1987 the Star Tribune hired Rob Daves to run the Minnesota Poll and the poll was returned to the newsroom. Daves has continued to direct the poll since that time.

In the past two elections, the Minnesota Poll's final pre-election poll results have proved wildly misleading in comparison with the actual electoral results. In each case, the final poll results have dramatically understated Republican support. The discrepancy between the Minnesota Poll results and actual electoral results does not appear to be random; it has consistently disfavored Republicans. Let's review recent history.

In the year 2000 election cycle, the Star Tribune published its final Minnesota Poll on November 5, 2000, two days before the election. The story summarizing the poll results ran on page one and dramatically reported that in a race that had been neck-and-neck, Gore had opened a 10-point lead over Bush, 47 percent to 37 percent.

The story reported that the race was "still-volatile" and quoted University of Minnesota political science professor Steve Smith as saying, "Gore's in the driver's seat in Minnesota. It appears a number of Minnesotans came back to Gore-where a lot of people expected them to be all along."

On election day, however, the race was in fact neck-and-neck. Gore edged Bush in Minnesota by only 60,000 votes out of 2,450,000 cast, 47.9 to 45.5 percent.

The poll cannot have been accurate, and its effect on Republican voters can only have been demoralizing. The remarkable fact about the 2000 presidential election is that Bush's pre-election lead, measured in every national poll, evaporated in the days before the election.

In their post-election recap in the Weekly Standard (November 27, 2000), Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon wrote, "National pollsters are nearly unanimous in believing that a George W. Bush lead of 5 percentage points at the end of October turned into the dead heat in the popular vote that was cast on November 7." The article reviewed final shifts in voter sentiment in detail, showing that Gore's closing surge varied in size around the country; his gains were widespread but not uniform.

I thought at the time, and still do, that the Star Tribune's final pre-election poll was wrong and probably affected the election result in Minnesota. I called Rob Daves to say as much and to complain about it. I also summarized the Bell and Cannon article that belied the poll. With no evidence other than his own poll, Daves stated that Minnesota was an exception to the national trend; in Minnesota, according to Daves, Bush had a closing surge.

This year's Minnesota Poll performed miserably as well. When the Star Tribune published its final Wellstone/Coleman poll in mid-October, showing Coleman trailing far behind Senator Wellstone, I called Daves to ask about the peculiarities of that particular poll.

I mentioned my earlier, November 2000 conversation with him and concluded by offering to bet Daves dinner for two at a restaurant of his choice that Coleman would do five points better than the Star Tribune's final pre-election poll, whatever it showed. Daves (wisely) declined the bet.

The Star Tribune's final pre-election poll was published on November 3, two days before the election. It showed Mondale leading Coleman 46 percent to 41 percent. In the actual election results, of course, Coleman beat Mondale 50 to 47 percent. The Minnesota Poll understated Coleman's strength as measured in the actual election results by 9 points and missed the margin between them by roughly the same amount.

Again Daves has attributed the discrepancy to a volatile electorate. However, it is a mysterious kind of "volatility" that somehow manages to disfavor only the Republicans.

There appears to be a problem here that has less to do with a volatile electorate than with the Rube Goldberg methodology of the Minnesota Poll. Traditional electoral polling methods call for the identification of "likely voters" and the tabulation of their preferences. These are the methods used, for example, by the Mason-Dixon polling organization that conducts polls for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

However, this is not the methodology employed by the Minnesota Poll. The Minnesota Poll takes into account the preferences of all respondents, but it "adjusts" the survey results; it "weights" the preferences of poll respondents according to "formulas verified in past elections."

At the City Center shopping mall in downtown Minneapolis, the fire alarm occasionally goes off accidentally. When it does so, City Center security staff deactivates the alarm and announces that the "alarm has been verified as false." That is the sense in which it appears the Minnesota Poll's formulas have been verified in past elections.

If I were the editor or publisher of the Star Tribune, I would be seriously concerned about, if not mightily embarrassed by, the quality of my product. If the Star Tribune's poll product were edible instead of legible, it would long ago have been recalled as dangerous to human health, or it would have killed off its customers. We can only hope that some day the Star Tribune cares as much about the quality of its news product as McDonald's does about the quality of its hamburgers.

Scott W. Johnson is a Minneapolis attorney and an adjunct fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship. He comments on the events of the day for the Web log "The Power Line."

Past RCP Commentary

Sign up for free email updates from RCP: