Texas deserves better polling


Ethan Oblak

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, speaks at his election party at the DoubleTree Hotel Houston on Tuesday. Patrick led his opponents with more than 40 percent of the vote and will likely face Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a run-off election May 27.

Noah M. Horwitz

As Election Night unfolded, I sat at a watch party glued to my laptop. The first few results rolled in on Tuesday evening, I could not help but be surprised at what I was seeing. Dan Patrick, the ultra-conservative state senator from Houston, was leading incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst 2-to-1 in the primary for that post, flouting both what had been assumed as gospel by the political establishment and reported as fact from a recent Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll.

That same poll showed LaRouche activist (a cabal of conspiracy theorists) Kesha Rogers holding a plurality lead in the Democratic Primary for the U.S. Senate. While she did — somehow — manage her way into a runoff with the establishment candidate, she did so with close to a 20 point deficit to make up, a normally insurmountable task.

The unpredictability of a Texas election is not a new concept, but the extent to which this one caught everyone off guard should serve as a wakeup call for all those who care about politics in this state. Currently, national polling firms neglect Texas elections except — every once in a while — during the immediate lead up to a presidential election. The result is that groups inexperienced in reliable election polling, such as the Tribune, are compelled to pick up the slack and ultimately delegate this important polling to unqualified organizations.

Some of the confusion about which way Texans would vote could stem from the less-than-accurate Tribune/UT poll. The poll was conducted via the Internet — instead of telephones — and allowed for opt-in responses rather than the pollsters going to the respondents. These conditions make for a poll that is slightly more reputable than no-frills Internet surveys.

“[T]he opt-in Internet survey methodology used by the UT pollsters and the Texas Tribune may be one of the most black magic of all the polling methods,” said RG Ratcliffe, a former Houston Chronicle reporter. “It’s a survey methodology so suspect that news organizations such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and Roll Call magazine have refused to use it.”

Indeed, Tuesday night’s results have vindicated what Ratcliffe and many others have said about these polls, which have nearly cornered the market when it comes to tracking the horserace in Texas politics. Accordingly, the question is raised of what attentive followers like me should do so as to not stay in the dark on these events.

In 2012, like many others, I meticulously followed every last turn along the Presidential election campaigns. In the closing days of the campaign, there were three or four reputable polls coming out in swing states every week, not only for the presidential election but for reputable senate races. While there were surely upsets, the plethora of polls was able to paint a pretty accurate picture of the political landscape. But without any of these accurate polls going into election days, even the most experienced political professionals have no idea what is coming after 7 p.m.

The Houston Chronicle wrote Wednesday that Dan Patrick “defies the odds” by winning a plurality, but I am at a loss to understand exactly what odds they speak of. Without consistent and reputable polling, everyone is in the dark.

The solution to this issue is twofold. Either national polling firms could enter the marketplace in Texas, and help to illuminate the mystery and suspense behind Texas politics, or the Texas Tribune could adopt a more trustworthy polling method.

At a watch party Tuesday night, I sat next to longtime press veterans from the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and CBS. As we gathered around my laptop to view the first returns coming in, each one of us had the same reaction: shock and surprise.

We all came to the conclusion that the Tribune poll was woefully unreliable. In fact, I would say the same for all the prognostications ahead of this year’s primaries. Texas deserves — no, it needs — better.

Horwitz is a government junior from Houston.