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Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010 03:55 pm

Governor’s race tightening up

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Gov. Pat Quinn and Sen. BIll Brady

While the Republicans say the pollsters are contacting the wrong people, the fact remains that three polls released last week had the Illinois governor’s race within two points. And five polls released in the past month have shown it to be a single-digit race.

The Chicago Tribune’s pollster had Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn leading Republican state Sen. Bill Brady 39-38 last week, which is a narrower margin than its 5-point Brady lead a month ago. A CNN/Time poll had Brady up by two, and a Democratic Governor’s Association poll had Brady up by one. Public Policy Polling had Brady with a seven-point lead.

The Republicans say the “universe” is skewed on all these polls. They believe that Republicans could actually outnumber Democrats come election day by a narrow margin. At the very least, they say, those other polls just skew too far Democratic.

If the Republicans are right, it would be the first time their party would outnumber or come close to outnumbering Democrats in any Illinois election in a very long time. This is a weird year, so nobody really knows who’s correct at the moment. Still, you need to keep the GOP’s strong objections very much in mind as we head into the final weeks of this campaign.

The other thing to remember is Gov. Quinn’s horrific job approval rating. The average of the four polls which asked the job approval question (CNN did not) was a 26 percent approval rating for Quinn, while a whopping 58.5 percent disapproved of his performance. He’s already vastly outperforming his approval rating, so it’ll be darned tough to push his own numbers up much higher unless people start feeling better about him soon.

Still, you simply cannot ignore five polls in a month showing Quinn within single digits of Brady. Whether the governor can pull this off is another story.

So, why does this race suddenly look so close? For months, polls have shown it to be a blowout for Brady.

I now firmly believe this race has been much closer than I thought for weeks, if not months. The reason why I and others got this wrong is very bad polling.

Every poll published from the beginning of August to before last week had Brady leading Quinn by anywhere from nine to 13 points.

Well, actually, one poll did show a close race. At the beginning of last month, the Chicago Tribune’s poll had Brady leading Quinn by only five points.

That Tribune poll was so different from the others that it was essentially ignored. But then last week, those other polls came out which showed a tighter race than widely assumed and I noticed something curious. Pollsters who did not include millionaire independent candidate Scott Lee Cohen’s name in their polls showed a far wider gap between Brady and Quinn than those who did.

Last month’s Tribune poll included Cohen’s name in the mix, as well as the other candidates. The polls released last week which showed a tight race included his name as well.

The average of all five polls during the past month which included Scott Lee Cohen’s name is 38.6 percent for Brady and 35.8 percent for Quinn – a roughly three-point split. The two-month average for polls taken which didn’t use Cohen’s name was 46.4 for Brady to 35.8 for Quinn – an almost 11-point race.

Notice that Quinn’s average is exactly the same in both sets of numbers. Brady’s is different. Why?

In a two-person race, when you attack an opponent a portion of your opponent’s supporters will eventually cross over to your side. But in races where lots of people are running, when you attack your main opponent, then his or her supporters might end up with one of the other “minor” candidates.

If you drill down into the polls, it appears that significant numbers of women voters left Brady after Quinn’s early attacks and moved to Cohen. Now, I know that sounds absolutely insane, considering the Cohen domestic abuse allegations and his arrest for allegedly holding a knife to his girlfriend’s throat. But lots of people still don’t know who and what Cohen is. And the news media have all but stopped reminding them.

Some top Republicans have been increasingly jittery that Cohen might be making this thing a little too close for jubilation. They appear to have been right.

More craziness to come, I’m sure.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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