Idaho voters will soon be inundated with campaign ads and sound bites from political candidates who proclaim to know exactly what Idahoans want. But it's unclear how voters are feeling heading into the May 20 primary election, thanks to a lack of public opinion polling. Without such polling, it's tough to tell if politicians' rhetoric matches the electorate's viewpoint.
U.S. Senate candidate Nels Mitchell, a Democrat, said at his campaign announcement that voters "tell me they don’t want their government shutdown, they want their government to work. They want a government that is efficient, and is responsive.”
Republican Russ Fulcher is running for governor. In his rebuttal to Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's State of the State speech, Fulcher said voters “said they don’t want another taxpayer dime or man hour spent on a state-run federal health exchange through Obamacare. They want a full review of the common core education initiative.”
Bryan Smith, a Republican challenging Congressman Mike Simpson, recently told NPR that “what people from this state want, from my district, running as a conservative Republican, they want me to represent their values.”
Like most politicians, each has made generalizations based on what vocal constituents have told them.
“What you have is decision makers relying on people they hear from most of the time," says longtime Idaho political scientist Gary Moncrief. "The people they’re closest to, or the people who are the squeakiest wheels.”
Moncrief was involved in the development of Boise State’s annual public opinion survey that began in 1990.
“So, without some sense of the kind of broader public opinion, we don’t really know if what they’re doing is accurate or not in terms of a reflection of what the public wants.”
Good Polls Don't Come Cheap
It’s important to understand that polling can only be a snapshot in time and poll results don’t always mirror election results.
But when used over time, polls can help understand how voters’ opinions are shifting. And when it comes to elected officials, polls can help gauge if policy decisions are heading in the right direction.
Boise State stopped its annual public opinion polling in 2011, a decision that was largely a financial one.
“These days, it’s extremely hard in almost all states, to get these polls going if they’re not already there. The reason is finances," says Moncrief. "It’s really expensive to do this kind of public opinion polling.”
Moncrief estimates it’d cost around $25,000 to conduct a scientific, statewide public opinion poll like the ones Boise State once did.
Costs have gone up, thanks in-part, to the use of cell phones. Pollsters typically have to over-sample an area, which costs even more money, in order to make the poll a truly random and representative snapshot of the electorate.
In other states, media organizations can also be reliable sources for public opinion polls. But in Idaho, media polls are few and far between.
The Idaho Statesman, for example, has polled four times in the last eight years
“Well, we do it sparingly largely because of cost," says Vicki Gowler, editor of the Idaho Statesman. “And the truth is I would do more polls, if I had a budget that allowed me to do that. I really have to know that there are issues I think people want to know.”
Gowler says three of the last four polls the paper has commissioned have been collaborations with other media outlets, to help defray the costs.
As a result of each media-sponsored poll, Gowler says the paper could rely less on anecdotal evidence of voters’ opinions, and more on data.
Polling Can Lead To Policy Changes
Moncrief says it’s useful to know if the public has changed its mind – or if political leaders are going too far out of bounds.
“Government officials are generally – generally I say – fairly responsive to public opinion when they know what that public opinion is," he says.
Even though state-based polls have mostly dried up here, Idaho is included in national polling data, says Gallup’s editor-in-chief Frank Newport.
Gallup is continuously polling the country on everything from gay marriage and marijuana to the economy and health care.
But in a random sample of U.S. voters, Newport says Idaho respondents only make up about half of one percent. He says national polls don’t often capture how people feel about state-specific issues.
“Some people may feel that in a smaller state like Idaho, particularly if it’s tilted one way or the other, we kind of know what people think," says Newport. "But there are issues that aren’t dictated as straight Republican/Democrat issues.”
Newport says there is a danger in not having regular, nonpartisan state-based polls.
“Then demagogues, politicians, others with vested interests can say ‘I know what Idaho residents are thinking’. They all favor this, or don’t favor that, but you really don’t know for sure unless you do the polling,” says Newport.
The Idaho Statesman’s Vicki Gowler says her paper is looking at doing a statewide poll prior to the May 20 primary election, even though it would come with a price tag of at least $10,000.
“There’s lots of interesting issues right now that we’re having a lot of rhetoric around," says Gowler. "But we don’t really know what the silent majority thinks, and I think tapping into that is important to do.”
Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio