Lowden commissions poll to try to raise money in homestretch, but it has problems

The email went out early Monday morning from Sue Lowden’s campaign manager, Tom Letizia:

It's been a few months since we had a meeting with our top supporters to discuss the Lieutenant Governor's race. As you know Sue has been tirelessly working the state from one end to the other and the results are showing.  We have some exciting polling information we want to confidentially share with you and the rest of our group at this meeting.

The email urged supporters to come to a meeting Thursday afternoon in downtown Las Vegas for a look at the poll. And I bet they were enthused to hear about the poll, which I have now obtained and which shows Lowden well ahead of her primary foe, state Sen. Mark Hutchison.

But. There are a lot of buts.

Most laymen – even many in the political/media worlds – are not that savvy about polls, don’t dig in past the toplines. If they did and understood, most people would not have thought Sharron Angle would defeat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2010 – most of the polling was garbage.

This survey, conducted by Precision Research nearly three weeks ago, has a small sample size (443, with a margin of error about 5 percent). And while a likely voter screen was used, this is going to be a very small, difficult-to-pinpoint electorate, with two-thirds of registered Republicans perhaps not voting in June.

Most importantly, what those at that Thursday confab probably were not told, the horse race question was rendered almost meaningless because it was asked after negative themes about Hutchison were tested. Oh, Lowden’s negatives also were given to respondents, but the difference was there was an attempt to mitigate Lowden’s weaknesses with follow-up questions.

I’ll get to some of the numbers in a moment, but they are not the real story here. What this illuminates is that Lowden needs money and wanted a poll to be able to show major donors to elicit some checks. The biggest question about this contest, since Hutchison has raised four or five times as much as Lowden, is whether she would put in her own money. And the commissioning of this poll tells me that her husband, Paul, is only willing to open the family wallet if she raises some money on her own. (Last year, she raised about $100,000 for the contest, and she matched that number with a check of her own.)

Some thoughts and the numbers:

►First, I have no doubt Lowden is ahead of Hutchison. Hardly anyone but junkies are paying attention yet to this race. Nobody knows who he is, and she was on the ballot in 2010, was a legislator and party chairwoman and was an anchorwoman for decades. She surely has a lead, although not the double-digit one this survey shows.

But it’s based on little more than name recognition, which Hutchison, who has raised seven figures by now (he took in $800,000 last year), will soon purchase. Hutchison’s camp, sources tell me, realizes she probably is ahead. But he is confident that when people begin paying attention and he starts spending his money, that will change.

►The actual number, taking into account the small sample size and the push questions, was 46-32, Lowden. No baseline horse race question was asked, as most seasoned pollsters do, to gauge how themes might affect the first blush look. That large lead for Lowden in the poll came only after questions about how voters would react if they knew Hutchison "voted three times for Obamacare" (85 percent were less likely to vote for him) and were aware that he raised a billion dollars in taxes (71 percent less likely).

I could have told them those issues were huge with a GOP primary electorate, and it wouldn’t have cost Lowden a dime.

(Of course Hutchison didn’t actually vote for Obamacare; he voted on three bills that helped enable it, including erecting the exchange and expanding Medicaid. But this is a campaign, after all.)

Those are killer issues, and surely colored voters’ minds when they answered the poll. But campaigns on paper are different than in reality, so let’s see how Lowden exploits those issues and if she can afford to do so. That’s what this poll really is about.

►The poll also explored Lowden’s negatives, including that $500,000 in debt from her 2010 bid. That hurts her pretty badly – 46 percent are less likely to vote for her. And when asked about her well-known contributions to Reid decades ago, 77 percent said they were less likely to vote for her. But voters were then told that Reid back then “was leaning more in the middle and less liberal than he is today,” that number came down to 43 percent.

There also were questions about the infamous “bartering with chickens,” which is, according to the poll, not much of an issue and maybe a net positive (22 percent less likely but 48 percent more likely). But that benign description doesn’t quite describe what a campaign on that would do. And there also was a fairly tepid question about Lowden voting “for a few taxes” as a lawmaker, which did little damage, especially after it, too, was diminished by a follow-up comparing her votes to Hutchison’s.

So the hits on Hutchison were much harder and not leavened, which accounts for the large spread. As I said, I would be surprised if Lowden were not ahead, but that 14-point number is meaningless. And even more so once money begins to be spent.

I would also say that most credible pollsters would recoil at the thought of no baselines question being asked before the pushes began, which will lend more folks to say this is more about raising money than gauging where the race is. Most donors, even major ones, don't know enough to look beyond the headline.

One last point on the poll: A separate general election snapshot showed Hutchison and Lowden defeating Democratic contender Lucy Flores by nearly double digits. But those numbers also are even sillier because of the sample size (216) and the large margin of error (nearly 7 percent). And no one knows who Flores is yet, either, or what kind of campaign she will run.

So I generally discount the numbers the elite Lowden insiders were shown Thursday in downtown Las Vegas. But what I don’t dismiss is that Lowden wants to use this poll to raise money, and the major question about her candidacy is unchanged by this survey: Will she write a check to keep herself competitive by the time early voting begins two months hence?

(Pic from RJ.)