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As Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren prepare for their first televised debate Thursday, two new polls show Warren is making gains.
One poll, conducted by the Western New England University Polling Institute (PDF), shows Warren leading Brown by six points, 50 to 44, with a margin of error of 4.2 percent. That’s four more points than Warren had in the same poll back in May (PDF).
Another poll conducted by the left-leaning group Public Policy Polling (PDF) gives Warren a two-point lead, with a margin of error of 3.3 percent. The last poll conducted by this group in August had Brown leading by five points (PDF).
Paul Watanabe, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston, joined All Things Considered host Steve Brown to sort through the new poll information.
Steve Brown: In recent months, we've seen that the race is pretty much deadlocked. Should we take these new numbers to mean that Elizabeth Warren is really in the lead?
Paul Watanabe: I think the numbers still reveal that the race is deadlocked. They're very close, even though one poll shows a bit of a spreading of the margin in Warren's favor. And secondly, again, from these most recent polls, it's the direction of the polls that's probably important — and they do indicate that the direction is slightly towards Elizabeth Warren. They probably reflect when the polls were taken, right after the Democratic Convention, a very successful Democratic Convention.
Is this a convention bump? What other things could be contributing to that slight pulling ahead?
It is a convention bump, but it has more to do than just Elizabeth Warren having appeared on national television and appeared at that convention. What that convention did was energize Democratic voters across the country and, of course, in this closely watched race here in Massachusetts.
Hers is what we call a campaign that's focused on the base; for her, she has to make sure that that base comes out, that that base is energized. And one thing that the Democratic Convention did for her, for President Obama and for others is that it energized and helped them mobilize that base.
Would you say thath Warren's base includes women voters? She's been focusing on women's issues. Is that contributing to the surge?
Again, a critical base, not only to her but generally for Democratic candidates. When you look at these polls, the Public Policy Polling poll in particular indicates that there is a significant gender gap in her favor.
I imagine both these polls were in the field around the same time. The Public Policy Polling poll shows a virtual dead heat, Warren ahead by just two points, which is within the margin of error. Why the difference between two points and six points in the poll by the Western New England University Polling Institute?
It may have something to do with the way in which they collected their sample, whether they used land lines or cell numbers. All of these factors affect demographics. Young voters usually do not have both land lines and cell lines. If you use the traditional selection of phone numbers — only relying on land lines — the argument is you might miss out on some of those younger voters who only have cell phones.
The specific numbers themselves are not so important. The question is: Is there a change in the direction of the poll? Some people have said the PPP poll is from a Democratic leaning organization — but remember, they were an organization that was showing a month ago Elizabeth Warren behind. Now they're showing Elizabeth Warren ahead. It's the direction that the numbers are taking that is probably the critical point, at least at this juncture.
We still have 50 days to go before the election. Is this a snapshot?
You've got it exactly right. It's a snapshot of when the poll was taken — in this case, last week, a few days ago. I guarantee we're going to see at least 50 of these snapshots right up to election day. And the closer and closer they get to the actual day, those snapshots should be clearer and clearer and closer to the real thing.
Is the overabundance of these polls a good thing for politics or a bad thing?
I'm a political scientist, I'm a professor — I'm not going to make an argument about not having information available and collecting information including something valuable about the electoral behavior of the public.
But to the extent to which polls drive the whole discussion about politics and about these races, I think they may be well overblown. It's very easy to do so, to send out a press release, to focus on these numbers. But as much attention, I would argue, should be spent and hopefully not taken away from the discussion of issues, the kinds of things that fundamentally are going to be decided by the choices that we make in November.
This program aired on September 17, 2012.
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