As the truncated Senate primary heads into the final week, Cory Booker seems to hold a commanding – and possibly insurmountable – lead over the rest of the Democratic field.
Polls have consistently shown the Newark mayor up by 40 points over his closest challenger and at least one poll has Booker over 50 percent in the four-candidate field.
But just how accurate the polls are is a matter of debate and even the pollsters conducting them say the August date and short runway make modeling the election extremely difficult.
“Usually you know there is a base of voters who turn out for a primary and then you take a stab at determining who above that will turn out,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “The hardest thing to figure out in this election is not who will vote, but how many.”
August is traditionally a heavy vacation month and the campaign has taken place entirely in summer months when people are less likely to be paying attention. Those factors, added to the fact that the candidates had less than three months to campaign, have some believing even Murray’s floor of 200,000 voters is high.
The June gubernatorial primary was virtually uncontested and drew just under 200,000 Democratic voters to the polls, while the 2008 U.S. Senate primary between U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg and U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews drew 344,000 Democrats. But both primaries were regularly scheduled events and both had down-ballot races. 2008 also was a presidential year with a heavily contested primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Expecting similar numbers on a hot August Tuesday might be stretching it, said Democratic campaign strategist Michael Muller.
“You have that core group of people who show up and vote in every primary, even non-competitive legislative primaries, and that’s usually about 200,000,” he said. “But this one is in August so I would still go on the side that it’s under 200,000.”
Polling uncertainties are so great given the nature of the primary that Dave Redlawsk of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling decided not to poll the race.
“The bottom line is polling is expensive and we didn’t think it was worth it because we didn’t think we could add anything,” Redlawsk said, adding that the number of people who take August vacations, the uncertainty of vote by mail and the public’s overall lack of knowledge about the primary created “intractable problems” for traditional polling.
Redlawsk said based on the polling that’s out there, there is little doubt that Booker has a lead, if based on nothing more than name recognition. But that the lead is 40 points is doubtful. Whatever the lead, Election Day turnout will tell the story.
“We always say it comes down to who has a good turnout operation, but this time I think it’s important in a way that is really, really unusual.”
Should either Holt or Pallone turn out voters in their Congressional districts in anywhere near normal numbers, they will instantly become competitive, both Redlawsk and Muller said.
Murray is more pragmatic, preferring to rely on the data that is out there.
“In the end it won’t matter,” he said. “When we tightened our poll as much as we could, Booker still won by 25 points. In a realistic world, it can’t be any closer than 25 points.”