The San Jose Mercury News reported that Carly Fiorina holds a comfortable lead in the race for the Republican nomination to challenge incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer. However writers Ken McLaughlin and Mike Zapler erroneously concluded from the Los Angeles Times/USC poll that “in a theoretical matchup, only one of the three GOP primary candidates can beat [Boxer]: former Silicon Valley congressman Tom Campbell.”
How do they draw that conclusion? By determining that moderates swing elections in California. “Among the moderates, Campbell, a fiscal conservative who supports abortion rights and gay marriage, beats Boxer 46 percent to 33 percent. But Boxer beats Fiorina among moderates 48 percent to 30 percent.” The photo caption emphasized, “Carly Fiorina will likely win the GOP candidacy for the U.S. Senate but will not unseat Democrat Barbara Boxer.” [emphasis added]
Based on that poll, Fiorina’s chances would indeed be slim if moderates and only moderates voted. But even McLaughlin and Zapler acknowledged that 31% of registered voters identified as conservative and 24% identified as liberal in addition to the 39% that identified as moderate.
Therefore the relevant question is not which candidate would moderate voters prefer, but which candidate would the be choice among all registered voters. So who wins in a Boxer-Fiorina matchup among registered voters? Amazingly, the writers didn’t even mention the poll result in the article. To get the answer I had to find the actual poll. Reviewing the data, I discovered that Boxer’s lead over Fiorina is just 44-38 among all registered voters (including leaners). While that’s more favorable to Boxer than a race against Campbell in which he leads 45-38, a mere 6 point margin with over five months left is much too close to count out Fiorina. (Among likely voters, Boxer hold a similar 45-39 lead over Fiorina.)
I would be interested to know whether writers took into consideration the enthusiasm gap when considering likely voters. There’s a good chance that pollsters are underestimating the significance of conservative and center-right voters to sway the election. At any rate, the Mercury News made a sloppy error in failing to consider – or even report – the full poll result.