Neel Kashkari has taken a narrow lead over Tea Party rival Tim Donnelly in the most recent poll of the California governor's race.
Kashkari leads Donnelly by a 5-point margin, 18 percent to 13 percent, in the poll commissioned by the L.A. Times and the USC Dornsife school. If that result holds up on Tuesday, Kashkari would go into a runoff with Gov. Jerry Brown, who polled at 50 percent.
The pollsters are being cautious about the result, calling it a “dead heat” between Kashkari and Donnelly. However, Kashkari's lead is outside the poll's 4.4-percent margin of error.
In a conference call Monday, pollster David Kanevsky said that Kashkari has the momentum heading into election day. Earlier surveys have shown Kashkari trailing Donnelly.
But in the last couple of weeks, Kashkari has poured millions of dollars into TV ads and mailers. Donnelly, meanwhile, has far less money to get his message out. He has been campaigning door-to-door, on talk radio, and through social media.
The race has been seen as a battle between the establishment and the Tea Party grassroots. But given the mismatch in funding, Kanevsky warned against reading too much into the outcome.
“It's about resources and communication,” Kanevsky said. “Kashkari is gaining because he's advertising. That's what you need in modern California politics.”
Kanevsky also defended characterizing the race as a “dead heat.” However, he acknowledged he would be “more surprised than not” if Donnelly wins, which suggests he doesn't actually think it's a dead heat.
One of the reasons for calling it a “dead heat,” he said, was that the pollsters did not want to influence the outcome of the race.
“I think it's important, from a survey perspective, that we don't put too much a thumb on the scale,” he said. “We want voters to make a decision based on how they're processing the race… We don't want to see the horse race drive the final decision.”
However, the National Council on Public Polls has counseled journalists not to call a race a “dead heat” unless the candidates are actually tied:
Certainly, if the gap between the two candidates is less than the sampling error margin, you should not say that one candidate is ahead of the other. You can say the race is “close,” the race is “roughly even,” or there is “little difference between the candidates.” But it should not be called a “dead heat” unless the candidates are tied with the same percentages. And it certainly is not a “statistical tie” unless both candidates have the same exact percentages.
In a case such as this one, in which a candidate leads outside the margin of error, the NCPP advises stating that that candidate is ahead:
When the gap between the two candidates is more than the error margin but less than twice the error margin, you should say that Candidate A “is ahead,” “has an advantage” or “holds an edge.” The story should mention that there is a small possibility that Candidate B is ahead of Candidate A.
Though this poll shows the race is not a dead heat, it's obviously still close, and Donnelly could win. And it's entirely possible the poll is wrong because the sample is off. But the numbers are the numbers.
Certainly one can see why the pollsters would not want to create a bandwagon effect for Kashkari by reporting that he is ahead. That's an even greater concern when the poll is released two days before the vote.
But that's really an argument for not doing the poll so close to Election Day.
Having already decided to release the poll when they did, it seems the pollsters have an obligation to talk about it accurately, no matter the consequences.