“There’s only one poll that matters, and that’s on Election Day.”
Candidates and campaign strategists often use the hackneyed, largely inaccurate oversimplification to deflect attention from polls showing them trailing. It's not accurate because if the polls show you are consistently trailing, your odds of winning are demonstrably worse. But this year, there may be something to it. Looking at the totality of the polling on the Massachusetts governor's race, it's hard to know how the odds stack up, with polls that show many different possible outcomes, many of them close.
In many elections, the totality of the polls offer a reliable picture, showing one candidate with the clear advantage, or that the race is clearly close or tied. In recent major Massachusetts elections, we have had a solid indicator on the winner from the polls, often months ahead of time. Ed Markey, Elizabeth Warren and Deval Patrick all knew well ahead of time they were ahead. Even in Scott Brown’s last-minute, come-from-behind victory in 2010, the polls close to Election Day clearly put him in the lead. Sure, individual polls vary in each race, and some miss the margin each cycle, but as a group, they usually tell a clear story.
Not this time. If you are confident in your prediction for Tuesday, I'd suggest caution.
Looking at the polls as a whole, the picture is too inconsistent to say anything with a high degree of certainty. Some are on one side, some on the other, and some (like ours) showing a near-perfect tossup. And the very small margin that the averages do show for Charlie Baker could be an artifact of the polls underestimating Democratic performance, which has happened in four of the last five races in Massachusetts.
Up until a few weeks ago, the polls were showing a disjointed, but continuous movement from a Martha Coakley lead in Baker's direction. But even as this trend was underway, some polls still showed Coakley holding her lead. And the movement stopped short of giving the poll averages enough evidence to show a clear lead for Baker, at least as of this writing. True, the Boston Globe has Baker leading by 9 points, but the volatility in the poll’s margins from week to week makes it at least possible this week will show a movement back toward a close race. And working in the same field period, the CBS/New York Times/YouGov poll showed Coakley up by 4. Scanning the rest of the polling shows various shades of tie, including the Globe’s own poll the week before they found a 9-point edge for Baker.
Taking it all together, it is marginally more likely that Baker will win based on these averages, but only marginally. On Tuesday, the HuffPollster model placed Baker’s odds of winning at 54 percent, or about the chances of making a field goal beyond 50 yards. On Wednesday, it was 58 percent, given the fewer days to go until Election Day. But with more polls coming out, these odds may move even closer to a coin flip. If a poll comes out in the next few days that echoes the CBS/New York Times/YouGov result, the tiny edge for Baker will all but disappear. Not the kind of certainty you would want as the game clock ticks down.
There are more polls to come. We should see at least four more polls, including Suffolk University/Boston Herald, UMass Amherst/WBZ, one more from the Boston Globe and Public Policy Polling, who announced they will be polling all major, competitive races over the weekend. We may also see Western New England University, Rasmussen and Emerson weigh in. Unless they uniformly show one result (which doesn't seem to be the pattern of late) it’s hard to see how they could make the picture any clearer.