Dakota War College, which is entirely in the tank for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marion Michael Rounds, chirps gleefully about a partisan poll showing Rounds coasting on name recognition to beat all of his challengers and uncertainty put together. Beneath all the chirping, DWC finally mentions that with a sample of 252 Republican primary voters, the poll is "interesting reading," but "hardly anything to bet the farm on."

I don't know how much farm-betting we might do on a push poll some conservative paid Public Policy Polling to do of 568 Republican primary voters in June. But that's what I have in my hands, courtesy of an eager reader who is absolutely not in the tank for Rounds, and it is interesting reading to see just what a push poll can do.

The opening question of the poll (after establishing that the callers are indeed Republican primary voters) finds 52% supporting Rounds, 17% supporting "a more conservative candidate," and 30% undecided.

Then PPP hammered away with 14 "questions" about Mike Rounds's record as Governor. After each item, PPP asked "In your view, is this a strong reason to vote against Mike Rounds, a somewhat strong reason to vote against Mike Rounds, or does it not make any difference to you?"

These two arguments triggered the strongest conservative reaction, with 42% of the sample saying each constituted a strong reason to vote against Mike Rounds:

Q15: During his years as Governor, seven of the eight budgets Mike Rounds submitted during his terms were in deficit, and he took deficit spending to a new record in our state, increasing spending by 53% during his time in office.

Q16: Instead of using bids to get the best value for taxpayer dollars, Mike Rounds, as Governor, used no-bid contracts to award millions of dollars worth of taxpayer-funded projects to his political cronies and campaign donors.

Notice these were the last of 14 questions about Rounds's record, so if the push poll was doing what it was designed to do, one could argue that these two questions were measuring the strength of the push poll, not the strength of the final two issues raised.

But the question asked right before those two was one of two that a majority of respondents said doesn't make a difference in their U.S. Senate primary vote:

Q14: Mike Rounds, as Governor, decided that the governor's mansion was "uninhabitable," and had a new 14,000-square-foot mansion built at a cost of $3 million. [54% said "doesn't make a difference."]

Q11: Mike Rounds made South Dakota one of the first states in the nation where taxpayer dollars are used to vaccinate school girls as young as 11 years of age against the sexually transmitted disease Human Pappiloma Virus (HPV). Many conservatives believe that this will lead to sexual promiscuity. [51% said "doesn't make a difference."]

(By the way: kudos to you majority of Republicans, slim as that majority may be, recognizing that providing HPV vaccines is good public health policy.)

Now here's the payoff: Question 17 repeats Question 2, and the responses change significantly:

Q17: Having heard all the information in this poll, I’ll ask you one more time: If the election for the Republican nomination for the United States Senate was held today, would you vote for Mike Rounds or a more conservative candidate, or are you undecided?

  • Mike Rounds: 35% [before: 52%]
  • A more conservative candidate: 39% [before: 17%]
  • Undecided: 26% [30%]

Get beyond Mike's insurance-salesman smile and name recognition, start talking about things he's actually done, and Rounds falls from majority to the 35% threshold for a primary runoff. Clear out the field and place on the ballot only one conservative challenger who turns these push poll questions into campaign ads and debate responses, and Rounds fights for his life.

A few minutes of push poll questions push a third of Rounds's voters to someone more conservative. Whether that push keeps Rounds from winning the nomination depends on how hard his challengers push his record, how hard they counter-productively push against each other... and how hard the win-no-matter-what Dick Wadhams campaign machine pushes back.

Update 11:00 CDT: Via Jon Lauck on Facebook, I learn that New Republic is assailing Public Policy Polling's methodology for lack of transparency, exclusion of cell phone numbers, and mis-weighting of racial groups. To the extent it matters, 5.9% of PPP's sample, 33 out of 568 Republican voters, identified themselves as non-white. And since Mike Rounds hates technology, calling only landlines could produce a Rounds-leaning sample.

Update 16:39 CDT: Public Policy Polling has your transparency right here, posting its full e-mail exchange with New Republic's Nate Cohn. David Montgomery links that post, and says I'm misusing the term push poll. Hmmm... how about pre-push pre-poll?