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Polls were widely off in Alabama, Mississippi

Polling underestimates fervor of Rick Santorum’s supporters

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum addresses supporters in Lafayette, Louisiana after winning the both Alabama and Mississippi primaries on Tuesday.

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum addresses supporters in Lafayette, Louisiana after winning the both Alabama and Mississippi primaries on Tuesday.

Of nine polls conducted in Alabama this month, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum led in just one. Polls put Santorum in third place in Mississippi.

When the two states held their primaries on Tuesday, Santorum won both, leading pollsters to wonder: what went wrong?

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“It appears that the intensity of support for Rick Santorum was higher than was picked up in the polls,” said Scott Rasmussen, president of Rasmussen Reports, which polled in both states. “I think that’s something we’re going to have to contend with going forward.”

Polling by four different organizations done the week before the Alabama primary found Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich essentially tied for first place with just over 28 percent of the vote, more than two points ahead of Santorum, according to an average compiled by Real Clear Politics. Polling by the American Research Group, which was released Monday and not included in that average, had Gingrich 10 points ahead of Santorum. There were fewer polls done in Mississippi, but none put Santorum in the lead.

One difference between Alabama and Mississippi and some of the earlier states was the lack of volume and diversity in polling. The major news organizations did not commission polls in either state. Established pollsters like Quinnipiac University and Gallup did not poll there. Much of the polling was by organizations like Rasmussen and Public Policy Polling, which use automated survey technology rather than live pollsters – a less expensive method that some pollsters say is more susceptible to error.

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Alabama State University had the only Alabama poll that put Santorum in the lead, on March 1. But its later poll found Santorum dropping to third.

Tom Vocino, executive director of the Center for Leadership and Public Policy at Alabama State University, which does the polling, said the polls showed a statistical dead heat all along. “It was a matter of the candidates turning out their vote,” Vocino said. “Santorum did a far, far better job at turning out his vote than the other two candidates.”

Vocino said one factor not captured in the polls was the impact of the Supreme Court chief justice race, won by Roy Moore, a conservative judge known for refusing to remove the Ten Commandments on a granite monument from an Alabama courthouse.

Of nine polls conducted in Alabama this month, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum led in just one. Polls put Santorum in third place in Mississippi.

When the two states held their primaries on Tuesday, Santorum won both, leading pollsters to wonder: what went wrong?

“It appears that the intensity of support for Rick Santorum was higher than was picked up in the polls,” said Scott Rasmussen, president of Rasmussen Reports, which polled in both states. “I think that’s something we’re going to have to contend with going forward.”

Vocino said Moore and Santorum both worked to turn out evangelical voters and support for one helped the other.

In addition, Vocino said university polls found that around 20 percent of voters were undecided, and it is likely those voters were influenced by last-minute get out the vote efforts. “If the get out the vote effort at the very end is not as intense in one campaign as it is in another, then the candidate who doesn’t finish the job, like Romney, comes out in second or third place,” he said.

David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which did not poll in Mississippi or Alabama, said the mistaken predictions in this election mirror mistakes made in 2008. That year, polls predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the Democratic primary in Alabama narrowly – but Barack Obama won in a landslide. Several wildly divergent polls on the Republican side in Alabama resulted in an average favoring John McCain – but Mike Huckabee won. Paleologos said in both years, the voters that were undercounted appear to be younger voters who are more likely to use cell phones.

“If an adequate amount of cell phones are not included in the sample, given that Santorum does better among younger voters, then you’re going to have a marked decrease or underrepresentation in Santorum votes,” Paleologos said.

In general, pollsters say it is harder to predict outcomes in primaries than in the general election. “Polling in primaries is a fool’s errand,” said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, who did not poll in Mississippi or Alabama. Smith said primary voters generally do not have the same emotional connection to candidates as they do in the general election, since they will vote for whoever is their party’s nominee in November.

“Things that happen in the last days or hours of campaigns can influence someone because they’re not tied to it much,” Smith said.

In New Hampshire, for example, 15 to 20 percent of voters said they made up their minds on election day. “If you’re polling, there’s no way you can catch that,” Smith said.

Shira Schoenberg can be reached at sschoenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shiraschoenberg.
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