Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes pushed back Wednesday against public polling that shows U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell with a growing lead in Kentucky, releasing an internal poll that shows a race to be a dead-heat.
Mark Mellman, Grimes' pollster, whose polling of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's 2010 race proved accurate when other public polls got it wrong, told reporters on a conference call that Grimes has a 1-point lead in what "is essentially a tied race."
"(The) bottom line is this is an exceedingly close race (with) the slightest advantage at this moment for Alison Lundergan Grimes," Mellman said. "It's a race that will certainly go down to the wire."
His results are a sharp departure from those of a slew of independent polls recently released, including an 8-point lead for McConnell in last weekend's NBC News/Marist poll, a 5-point lead in the CBS/New York Times/YouGov poll and a 4-point lead in the Bluegrass Poll.
In what The Washington Post's Aaron Blake referred to on Twitter as "the this-race-is-still-competitive-please-don't-give-up internal poll," Mellman argued that McConnell's unpopularity was behind the knot in the race.
Mellman also cited his past successes and repeatedly insisted that he was "absolutely" and "completely confident" in his results.
"One of the differences and one of the things that makes us accurate is we're focused on the likely electorate and not just likely voters," Mellman said, although he stopping short of divulging the "secret sauce" of his methodology.
"There's never been an electorate made up exclusively of likely voters," Mellman said. "We want to know what that likely electorate looks like."
Mellman's poll found Grimes leading McConnell 43 percent to 42 percent, with 15 percent undecided.
The poll found that McConnell and Grimes, who is Kentucky's secretary of state, have about the same favorable rating — 42 percent for McConnell and 41 percent for Grimes — but that McConnell's unfavorable rating was significantly higher, with 53 percent holding an unfavorable view of McConnell to 36 percent holding an unfavorable view of Grimes.
The telephone survey of 800 Kentucky voters was conducted Sept. 4-7 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. It did not include Libertarian candidate David Patterson. Mellman declined to provide a detailed breakdown of his findings.
Mellman has a reputation as one of the best Democratic pollsters in the country, but his latest numbers run counter to all recent independent polls of Kentucky's U.S. Senate race, as well as to three Republican-leaning polls and one left-leaning poll.
Two of those GOP-leaning polls were released Wednesday, including one by Magellan Strategies showing McConnell leading 50 percent to 42 percent, an 11-point swing from the company's June poll of the race.
The other, as reported first by Politico, is an internal poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies for American Crossroads. It shows McConnell leading Grimes 47 percent to 42 percent, with Patterson drawing 4 percent.
This past weekend, The New York Times's statistics team put McConnell's chances of winning at 93 percent, arguing that "McConnell's path to re-election is looking more assured."
The Grimes campaign's decision to release internal poll numbers and make Mellman available to reporters on a conference call was seen by Republicans and political analysts as an effort to calm skittish Democratic donors before a fundraising push by Grimes in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles this month.
The Grimes campaign added fuel to that notion by blasting out a fundraising email Wednesday with the "great news" that "Alison has pulled ahead of Mitch McConnell," but never mentioning that the poll in question was conducted internally.
"Alison Lundergan Grimes is dangerously close to losing national interest in her campaign with nine straight polls showing her losing significant ground, so that's what this poll is about," McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore said. "The bottom line is that every single public poll shows that Kentuckians aren't interested in trading in the clout and influence they have in the Senate for another liberal vote in support of the Obama agenda."
Stephen Voss, a professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, said campaigns will often release good news if they're worried that "voters are getting the perception they're destined to lose. In politics, perception can become reality."
"If Grimes supporters are demobilized by recent bad news, it risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy — Grimes cannot win if her supporters do not show up — and it can hurt other Democrats in close races that are not getting as much publicity as the Senate campaign," Voss said.
The geographic breakdowns of recent polls have shown enormous disparities between the candidates, with McConnell enjoying overwhelming leads in Western Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky, and Grimes holding smaller leads in Central Kentucky.
Mellman acknowledged that there are "geographic disparities" in the race, but he said it was "not fruitful" for him to discuss them in detail.
Grimes campaign manager Jonathan Hurst, however, hurried to add that "yes, there are areas that we are overperforming."
"And there are areas that we can see strong movement in our direction just as our plan had put us at the beginning of the race," Hurst said.