Be Careful With the Poll Showing Tancredo and Polis Neck and Neck

Update, October 31: Tom Tancredo has announced he is running for governor of Colorado.

From the Colorado Springs Gazette to Colorado Politics to Colorado Democrats, a poll showing Republican Tom Tancredo in a statistical dead heat with Democrat Jared Polis in a hypothetical one-on-one Colorado gubernatorial matchup — though perhaps not so hypothetical, as Tancredo is expected to announce his candidacy on November 1 — appears to be causing somewhat of a stir in the local political scene.

But be careful with the poll's results. Very, very careful.

In a survey of 1,000 likely general-election voters, the Braynard Group poll found that Tancredo is essentially neck and neck with Polis, the early favorite to win his party's gubernatorial primary. In the still-hypothetical matchup, Tancredo gets 24.7 percent of the vote, narrowly trailing Polis's 26.2 percent, with 47.2 percent of respondents still undecided. The margin of error is 3.16 percent.

Furthermore, the poll shows Tancredo would lead a crowded Republican primary field with 22.1 percent of the vote, with State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, his nearest challenger, at 8.5 percent. But more than 54 percent of the 400 Republicans sampled in the survey said they were still undecided, and the poll shows that more than 47 percent of likely general-election voters remain undecided.

"Generally, a poll this far ahead of an election doesn’t tell us very much about what will happen," says University of Denver political science professor Seth Masket. "What it mostly tells us is which candidate has name recognition. Tom Tancredo has a long and very high-profile career in the state, as a member of Congress, a presidential candidate, and a gubernatorial candidate. Most of the other candidates, particularly on the Republican side, aren’t very well known yet. As the party fields begin to winnow, the public will become more familiar with just one or two of the candidates, and Tancredo will likely not seem as sure a bet."

Even the poll's director, Matt Braynard, former data chief and strategist for Donald Trump's presidential campaign, says it should be taken with a grain of salt.

"The primary takeaway isn’t the closeness of Tancredo and Polis, but that this race is wide open and that candidates have a tremendous window to shape the public’s perception of themselves and of their opponent," wrote Braynard in an email.

There are other issues with the poll — namely, that it skews heavily toward older and Republican voters.

About 48 percent of the poll's respondents are 66 or older. Based on official Census estimates, about 14.1 percent of Colorado's voting population is 65 or older. Older voters traditionally have higher turnout rates, but in Colorado, voters ages 41-60 accounted for the highest overall turnout (net total) in 2016. Voters 66 or older accounted for around 20 percent of 2016 general-election ballots, a number that is likely to increase in a lower-turnout midterm election, but is unlikely to come even close to half of total votes.

Additionally, older voters are more likely to recognize and support Tancredo, with his aforementioned lengthy history in Colorado politics.

With 38.6 percent of the poll's respondents identifying as registered Republicans, that accounts for a larger share than the 30.9 percent of registered Republicans in Colorado, as of October 1. But Braynard says that registration doesn't necessarily match up with turnout.

"It is critically important to understand that registration percentages do not equal turnout percentages," Braynard wrote. "Turnout percentages in 2014 and 2010 show [Republicans] at 38% and 39%, respectively, and our poll is in line with that."

Republicans accounted for about 37 percent of statewide turnout in 2014, a GOP-favoring election. Although it took place in a presidential year (typically higher turnout), official figures show statewide Democratic turnout closely trailed Republican turnout in the 2016 election, with 78.5 percent of Dems and 81.7 percent of Republicans voting.

Additionally, the overall share of the state's Republican electorate has declined from 2010 (35.3 percent) and 2014 (32.4 percent) to around 30.9 percent now, and projections show it being closer to 30 percent by next November.

That's all to say that this poll likely overestimates the registered Republican share of the vote in next year's election, and likely by a healthy margin.

With the statewide electorate trending bluer and, more significantly, increasingly independent, Tancredo, who has long been branded a hard-core right winger because of his immigration and other policies, will probably have an uphill battle to win the governor's mansion. He has a chance, but it's likely far from the fifty-fifty odds one could read from this poll.

If you want a better idea of how Colorado's gubernatorial race may swing next year, there's an election just days away that may offer better clues about how the local political tide may be swinging.
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Chris Bianchi is a Westword contributor interested in politics.
Contact: Chris Bianchi