Mitt Romney’s campaign is publicly arguing that the methodology of a WaPo/ABC poll tainted its finding that his national numbers are tanking. However, polling experts who talked to TPM say that the survey is in line with a broad set of evidence that Romney’s general election appeal is declining — even if the poll’s approach is less than ideal.
The poll in question couldn’t have looked much worse for Romney’s presidential hopes. While it indicated he was still strong in the primary, his national numbers showed a rapid fall with Obama leading him 51-45 among registered voters. Romney pollster Neil Newhouse says these top line numbers should be disregarded because the question came after a series of queries referencing various recent stories surrounding Romney, including whether voters think his wealth is a positive or negative, whether they think he did more to create or cut jobs at Bain Capital, whether they feel his 14% tax rate is fair, and whether his Mormon religion affects their views of his candidacy.
“The poll introduced specific negative information about Governor Romney immediately prior to asking the ballot match-up against President Obama,” Newhouse wrote. “While I certainly understand the difficulty of designing a questionnaire to learn as much information as possible about a campaign, and the compromises that sometimes have to be made, the questionnaire design used by the Post/ABC Poll in this case is seriously flawed.”
Jon Cohen, director of polling for the Washington Post, told TPM in an e-mail that he felt the results held up.
“We take question writing and ordering seriously, as both can make differences,” Cohen wrote. “We also welcome discussion on these, but note the movement on the horse race numbers under scrutiny is in sync with the trend on answers throughout the poll. The result is also in line with other publicly released polls. That said, we publish our full questionnaires — with exact question wording — for just such scrutiny.”
It is true that the numbers for Romney hardly look great before the string of focused questions about his campaign. In perhaps the worst result of the entire survey, Americans told the Post by a 2 to 1 margin that the more they hear about Romney, the less they like him.
Tom Jensen, a pollster for Democratic firm PPP, told TPM while the Post’s and ABC’s overall numbers didn’t seem particularly out of line to him, the Romney campaign wasn’t off base in their complaints.
“I don’t know if it really affected the results because we’ve had Obama up by similar margins in our recent national polling, but I agree that you should not ask message testing questions right before horse race questions,” he said. “It’s a legitimate complaint, whether it really swayed the numbers or not.”
Charles Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, was less convinced by the Romney camp’s argument given the amount of play various attacks on him have gotten in the press.
“Since voters are exposed to the campaign issues anyway it doesn’t seem unusual to have asked these before the vote questions,” Charles Franklin, a visiting professor of law and public policy at Marquette University Law School, said in an e-mail, adding that he doesn’t think it has a “big effect either way.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated Charles Franklin’s current position. TPM regrets the error.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.