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We have a high opinion of ourselves here in Massachusetts, and (if we might say so ourselves) with good reason. We're proud, rightfully, of our sports dynasties, our history and our world-class hospitals and universities. It takes a certain amount of confidence to nickname your capital city "the Hub of the Universe."
We can add political polling to the state's brag list. Massachusetts is home to no fewer than seven independent, nonpartisan pollsters churning out high-quality poll data to satisfy political obsessives. And we churn out a lot of it.
Using data from the Huffington Post's HuffPollster, we ranked all 50 states on the quantity and quality of their polling. Here's where Massachusetts stands:
- Total state-level governor or Senate polls: 3rd most (108)
- Nonpartisan polls: 4th most (79)
- Nonpartisan live-interviewer polls: 3rd most (60)
Part of the reason for the high raw number of polls here is the extra election in the time period (the 2013 U.S. Senate special election to replace John Kerry) and the very closely watched Scott Brown-Elizabeth Warren matchup in 2012.
But the polling here is more than just plentiful, it is also high-quality stuff. One indicator of quality is that the polling is done by a nonpartisan pollster, meaning a pollster not affiliated with either political party. Massachusetts is second only to New Jersey in the percentage of totals polls conducted by nonpartisan pollsters.
Another key measure of quality is whether the poll uses live telephone interviewers calling both landline and cellular telephones, as opposed to Interactive Voice Response (IVR) or "robopolling". IVR polls are cheaper to conduct, but they are prohibited by law from contacting cellphones -- a major drawback given the increasing number of American households who own cellphones but no landline.
Of the seven public nonpartisan pollsters in Massachusetts, six use live telephone interviewers. The other (UMass Amherst) uses YouGov, a high-quality online polling firm, whose track record for accuracy is first-rate.
A surprising number of other states are polling deserts, where nonpartisan polls calling both landlines and cellphones are like an oasis (rare) or a mirage (non-existent). Some polls only call landlines, missing the growing cell-only population altogether. Others use poorly constructed combinations of IVR polling and non-random online surveys. And many of these are partisan polls, which are prone to overstating support for their preferred candidates. None of these options offer the level of reliability of the kinds of polls available in great supply here.
Why does this matter? In a number of recent statewide elections, there has been little or no public, high-quality, nonpartisan polling. This dearth of polling has contributed to well-publicized misses like the recent Georgia and Mississippi U.S. Senate runoffs, where the available polling did not even come close to predicting the final outcome. The polling in each state was a combination of partisan polls and the kinds of inexpensive, lower-quality polls that have become more common in recent years.
It must be said that primaries are notoriously hard to poll, and the error rate for primary polls is considerably higher than in a general election. In our own current gubernatorial primary, we have a fairly wide range of estimates going into the final week. That means not all the local pollsters — all of them reputable, nonpartisan outfits — can be right. But regardless of which polls ends up being closest to the mark, the public can rest assured that there is no partisan interest or dubious methodology lurking behind the numbers.
When it comes to both the quantity and quality of political polling, then, Massachusetts has every right to be proud. It's not too much of a stretch to say that the Bay State is one of the hubs of the polling universe.
Steve Koczela is the lead writer for Poll Vault and president of The MassINC Polling Group.