Pollster: McCain's hold on Arizona shrinking - East Valley Tribune: News

Pollster: McCain's hold on Arizona shrinking

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Posted: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 7:38 pm | Updated: 9:19 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Bob Turner's daughters disagree with him, but the retired Air Force master sergeant and lifelong Republican stepped up Tuesday to proclaim his support for Democrat Barack Obama.

Jill Corbet Bergen said her father, former GOP state Senate President Leo Corbet, understood her decision to come out publicly for Obama, though Corbet remains in Arizona Sen. John McCain's camp.

While picking up a handful of Republicans in McCain's home state may not seem like much, longtime pollster Bruce Merrill expects to see real changes when his surveyors start making calls later this week.

This presidential election poses a host of new challenges for pollsters - including the proliferation of cell phones and early voting.

Will Arizona turn blue? Probably not, Merrill predicted, but it could be decidedly purple.

"My guess is that if I took a poll today that McCain would be ahead, maybe, but very slightly," said Merrill, professor emeritus at Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism. "I think it would be a very close race."

McCain had a 7 percentage-point lead over Obama in the last poll for KAET-TV (Channel 8) and the Cronkite school, released Sept. 30, compared with a 10-point spread a month earlier. About 16 percent were undecided.

Merrill said this weekend's survey will challenge traditional polling methods, since thousands of Arizonans have already cast their ballots. Early voting in Arizona began Oct. 2, and more than half of the state's 2.8 million voters are expected to vote before Election Day, which is Nov. 4.

Obama's state director, Kelly Paisley, sent a recent e-mail to supporters, urging them to vote early and bring five friends with them.

So Merrill is rewriting his typical question - who will you probably vote for? - to capture those who've already voted. And he's figuring that only about 10 percent remain undecided - and most of them won't even vote.

At the same time, he's abandoning the "most likely voter" strategy so as not to miss some of the 40,000 Arizonans who registered Oct. 6, the last day to do so. Mostly likely voters are randomly selected among people who voted in at least two of the last three elections.

"You would miss a lot of young people and a lot of people who recently moved to the state," he said.

The cell phone issue has been underestimated, Merrill said.

Since roughly 15 percent of voters use cell phones exclusively, and they tend to be younger, and people under 30 are supporting Obama by a 2-1 margin, Merrill said, there's a lot of young people that pollsters aren't reaching.

That may be, said former Maricopa County GOP Chairman Tom Liddy, but there are many conservatives who don't participate in polls.

"I would expect him to carry this state by nine points or more," Liddy predicted. "John McCain is a known quantity. Barack Obama is newly introduced. And we're learning more about him each week."

Liddy said pollsters can't reach people who screen their calls or don't answer the phone during the dinner hour. It's an inexact science, he said, that has significantly undercounted the strength of candidates, such as Republican Bob Dole in his 1996 contest against Bill Clinton.

"There's no evil intent of pollsters," Liddy said. "It's just very difficult to extrapolate what's going to happen based on what people are willing to tell you."

The two lifelong Republicans who announced their support of Obama on Tuesday said they crossed party lines in part because they've been put off by the tenor of McCain's campaign.

"He wimped out. He decided he was going to make a deal with the devil," Turner, of Mesa, said at a news conference at Obama's Phoenix headquarters.

"I think it's time for Americans to learn why Arizonans like myself believe John McCain does not have the temperament to be president of the United States."

Bergen grew up helping with her father's campaigns for the state Legislature, but will vote Democratic for the first time this year because she said Obama has remained above the fray in a progressively nasty campaign.

"Every time Obama opened his mouth, he kept rising above," she said. "As the mother of two small children, this is what I want to see."

For his part, McCain has Democrats on board, including former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson and former League of United Latin American Citizens director Ray Gans.

"I think there are a lot of Democrats who have already voted for John McCain in Arizona," Liddy said. "I think they're reluctant to talk about it, reluctant to put signs out."

Despite huge numbers of early voters, the biggest poll is taken on Election Day. And Merrill expects the race to be decided by the nation's young.

"If these young people, in Arizona and across the country, if they really go to the polls, this election won't be close," Merrill said. "If they don't go to the polls, then it'll be very close."

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