The Brown-Warren race and the ghosts of a 2010 poll

With today’s Boston Globe poll reporting that Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren leads Sen. Scott Brown by five points, get ready for Brown’s defenders to dredge up an infamous Globe poll from two years ago — the one that showed Attorney General Martha Coakley leading Brown, a Republican, by 15 points.

Globe-bashers like Howie Carr love to point to that earlier poll as a sign of the paper’s liberal bias — and I’ll predict right now that that will be the subject of Carr’s next column in the Boston Herald.

In fact, Globe polls are not Globe polls — they are conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, a respected, independent polling operation.

So what went wrong in 2010? My theory: Nothing. The story about that earlier poll is protected behind a paywall (I’m a subscriber, so I’ve reread the whole thing). But as you can see from this excerpt, the poll was conducted between Jan. 2 and 6, and the election to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy created by Ted Kennedy’s death was held on Jan. 19.

Thus it’s likely that the poll was accurate when it was conducted. People were just getting back to their normal routines coming out of the holidays. The race broke very late for Brown. By the time the story was published, on Jan. 10, the race was already trending away from Coakley, and within days, other polls were reflecting that.

What does that mean for Brown now?

First, the margin of error in the new poll, which shows Warren with a 43 percent to 38 percent lead, is 4.4 percent. In other words, if the election were held tomorrow, Brown could beat Warren by several points without calling the validity of the poll into question. The race is still essentially tied.

Second, this is not a low-turnout special election, and as the Globe story notes, Brown faces some harsh realities. By wide margins, people like Brown and like the job he’s doing — but they are increasingly leaning toward Warren because of the enormous enthusiasm among Massachusetts voters for President Obama. I suspect you would not be able to get Brown to utter the words “Mitt Romney” these days even if he were being waterboarded.

Third and most important: It’s still early. No, it’s not as early as it was during the pre-Labor Day period, when you could argue that most people weren’t paying attention. But it’s early enough for things to change dramatically if Warren stumbles badly. That’s why I think Brown is making a mistake by putting a torch to his nice-guy image with his continued attacks on Warren’s claim that she’s part-Native American.

David Bernstein of The Phoenix offers some further analysis of the Globe poll. And Nate “The Great” Silver of the New York Times takes a deep look at conservative claims of liberal bias in polling — and buries the assertion in an avalanche of well-marshaled data.

Illustration (cc) by DonkeyHotey and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.