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Headline grabbing “GOP” primary poll should be taken with a truckload of salt

By: Russ Latino - June 19, 2023

Supposed Republican primary poll falls flat when you account for fact that 1/3rd of respondents don’t identify as Republican.

In the last week, Republican primary polling performed by Mississippi Today/Siena College garnered two waves of stories. Gleaning any real meaning from the polling requires looking deeper than the headlines, and at times, swallowing a truckload of salt.

Wave one focused on the lt. governor’s race, where incumbent Delbert Hosemann faces multiple Republican challengers. His chief rival in the contest is conservative firebrand Senator Chris McDaniel. The polling indicated that among people who responded, Hosemann had a 15-point lead over McDaniel, 47% to 32%.

Wave two attempted to squeeze a general election question about the governor’s race into a Republican primary poll. The calculated headline read “21% of Republican primary voters back Democrat Brandon Presley over GOP Gov. Tate Reeves.” The false impression created is that Republicans are preparing to flee the Republican candidate. Twitter victory laps and snarky cartoons followed.

Oceanfront Property in Arizona

A party primary poll presupposes that the people polled are, at least to a great degree, members of the party being polled. (That’s eight “P” words in one sentence…eat your alliterative heart out). This is where the Mississippi Today/Siena College polling falters into the territory of advocacy.

Looking under the hood of the poll, only 68 percent of the people polled self-identified as Republicans. 32 percent of the people who responded either identified as something other than Republican (29%) or did not identify (3%).

Mississippi has open primaries, so the potential for crossover voting exists. Historically, however, a sample size of self-identified Republicans between 85-90 percent for a party primary poll, including in 2019, have yielded the most accurate outcomes.

It’s possible 2023 could mark a drastic deviation from the norm. Possible, though the idea of a 20-point gain in non-Republicans voting in a Republican primary seems unlikely.

To put a fine point on it, 21 percent, in a poll that included 32 percent of people who do not identify as Republicans, said they would prefer Presley.

This does not, in fact, suggest an exodus of Republicans. It does not really portend anything for the general election contest between Reeves and Presley. The headline could have just as easily read, on the flipside, that Reeves draws support from people who do not identify as Republican.

Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Constituency?

In the Coen brother classic, “O’ Brother Where Art Thou?,” Homer Stokes famously asks a hostile audience “is you is or is you ain’t my constituency?” The answer was “they ain’t” (or were not, if you are an English teacher).

In addition to undersampling self-identified Republicans, the Mississippi Today/Siena College polling contains another glaring indication that those polled likely are not representative of the Republican primary “constituency.”

The poll suggested that a strong plurality of Republican primary voters, 45 percent, preferred “moderate” candidates. Barring some seismic shift underway, this is complete and utter poppycock.

In March, Magnolia Tribune teamed up with Mason-Dixon polling to run a general election poll. One question sought to understand voters’ ideological preferences in candidates.

A plurality of 47 percent of general election voters said they preferred the most conservative candidate over moderate or liberal candidates. The number of self-identified Republicans favoring conservative candidates was much higher at 78 percent.

RELATED: Polling Shows Conservatism is Still King Among Likely Mississippi Voters

Mason-Dixon has been polling Mississippi since the mid-1980s. It has over 440 polls analyzed and an A- rating with 538’s Pollster Rating. In 2019, Mason-Dixon had Gov. Reeves with a 3-point lead heading into the final two weeks of the campaign against former-Attorney General Jim Hood. Reeves ultimately won by 5-points. It has a long and accurate track record in Mississippi.

Perhaps some of discrepancy between the polls is that the Mississippi Today/Siena College polling did not use the term “conservative” as an option, but instead used the loaded term “far right.” In common usage “far right” often refers to right-wing extremism, nationalism, or authoritarianism. Using “far right” as a placeholder for conservative is a false equivalency and one that demonstrates bias in the question.

So What’s a Fella to Make of It?

Short answer: not much. In the case of the lt. governor’s race, incumbent Hosemann almost certainly has a lead on McDaniel and is in strong position giving his cash-on-hand advantage. But his lead is almost certainly not 15-points among the people who will actually show up and vote in the Republican primary.

To the credit of veteran journalist Geoff Pender, who has been around the block and seen lots of polls, he recognized this in the framing of his story on the poll. Even his headline noted a large chunk of undecided voters.

It’s almost certain that Hosemann watched what happened in the Congressional District 3 race between Michael Guest and Michael Cassidy, where an incumbent congressman was pushed to the brink in a runoff by a candidate who “ran to his right” with almost no name ID or money.

What Cassidy did have was an intense grassroot following. What McDaniel still has is an intense grassroots following. If turnout is low, which it has been in recent primary elections, that favors the candidate with the most loyal base. Hosemann knows this, which is why he’s running hard.

In terms of the governor’s race, trying to discern the outcome of general election through a poorly constructed primary poll is sloppy. The best polling indicator would be a general election poll.

To date, three general election polls that pitted Reeves directly against Presley have been conducted. Mississippi Today/Siena College ran a poll in January, which showed Reeves with a 4-point advantage head-to-head. Magnolia Tribune/Mason-Dixon’s March poll showed Reeves with a 7-point advantage. An April Mississippi Today/Siena College showed Reeves with an 11-point advantage.

If anything the trajectory of these polls would suggests that the momentum belongs to Reeves. The rest appears, at this point, to just be smoke and mirrors to rile up Presley’s base.

About the Author(s)
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Russ Latino

Russ is a proud Mississippian and the founder of Magnolia Tribune Institute. His research and writing have been published across the country in newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal, National Review, USA Today, The Hill, and The Washington Examiner, among other prominent publications. Russ has served as a national spokesman with outlets like Politico and Bloomberg. He has frequently been called on by both the media and decisionmakers to provide public policy analysis and testimony. In founding Magnolia Tribune Institute, he seeks to build on more than a decade of organizational leadership and communications experience to ensure Mississippians have access to news they can trust and opinion that makes them think deeply. Prior to beginning his non-profit career, Russ practiced business and constitutional law for a decade. Email Russ: