Observers question poll indicating a close U.S. Senate race between Deb Fischer and Dan Osborn

Dec. 22, 2023, 9 a.m. ·

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I voted stickers are seen at a polling place (Associated Press)

LINCOLN — A recent survey by a left-leaning pollster with a solid reputation but an unusual approach triggered questions about the U.S. Senate race involving Nebraska’s senior senator.

Local political observers questioned some of the poll’s methods and findings, including its headliner: a close race between two-term Republican Sen. Deb Fischer and Dan Osborn, a union leader and nonpartisan political newcomer. 

California pollster Change Research surveyed 1,048 likely 2024 Nebraska voters Nov. 13-16. It found 40% support for Osborn and 38% for Fischer, which fell within the survey’s 3.1% margin of error. Of those surveyed, 18% were undecided. 

The pollster and a half dozen Nebraska political consultants and observers interpreted the poll as showing voters are open to considering an independent, third-party candidate. 

Poll interpretations

Nebraska politicos with polling experience said they doubted Fischer’s race was as close as the survey indicates. Several said the poll does hint at the potential for a more competitive race than usual.

The same poll indicated that former President Donald Trump would lead President Joe Biden in a hypothetical Nebraska matchup, 53% to 35%. The poll did not ask about possible third-party presidential candidates. 

Change Research is a Bay Area polling firm led by a former Democratic Party operative. Ben Greenfield, one of the group’s senior pollsters, said it works with clients on the left and center, local governments and private companies. Some of its polls have grabbed headlines by identifying races that might be worth the attention of national donors.

Nebraska Railroaders for Public Safety, a new federal Super PAC based in Hemingford, paid for the poll. The PAC’s treasurer did not return a call seeking comment.

How the poll worked

The pollster primarily used social media advertising and text messages sent to registered voters with cell phone numbers on file. The poll was weighted and recruited participants from certain demographics to match the sample to the state’s population.

Nearly 1,000 of those surveyed were targeted by ads on Facebook or Instagram, and the remaining 50 or so were contacted by text, said Dona-Gene Barton, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who studies polling.

Using social media ads to encourage participation could have drawn a higher percentage of politically engaged voters, she said, potentially influencing the results. 

“As we have seen in past poll data using head-to-head questions for U.S. president, oftentimes those types of questions are not particularly accurate,” Barton said.

Pollster defends methods others question

Paul Landow, a retired University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor, who previously worked on local and statewide Democratic campaigns, said he treats any poll showing such an unlikely result “with a great amount of skepticism.”

He said the poll likely oversampled urban and suburban Nebraskans and undercounted rural residents who still rely on landline phones. Many might not have easy access to broadband internet or be regular social media users, he said.

His biggest concern was how the pollster identified likely voters. Most pollsters ask whether people have voted in three of the last four elections, or something similar, to determine likely voters, he said. This poll did not, he said.

Greenfield defended Change Research’s social media-driven polling. He said it’s aimed at getting people when they are at leisure and helps overcome the resistance many people have to taking phone calls from pollsters. He said the firm does the mathematical work to make sure its samples match the polled area’s population.

He said the group honed its approach over 6 ½ years of statewide, national and local polling to make sure its approach is “as good or better than any of the legacy polling methodologies.”

“It’s easy to distrust modern methods of conducting polls,” he said. “Any of those criticisms could be leveled much more accurately at older methods of conducting polls. At this point, you’re at much greater risk of missing people if you’re only dialing phones.”

Long way to go

Greenfield said it is “very early” in the campaign. He said the poll found a softness in Fischer’s support that did not show up in Nebraska’s other Senate race, involving Sen. Pete Ricketts. Republican John Glen Weaver is Ricketts’ only announced challenger.

Fischer described the poll as “fake.” She compared it to a 2012 poll by the Omaha World-Herald that indicated she was in a close race with former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey. She won that race by nearly 16 points. 

Fischer said she has supporters across Nebraska. She won her most recent race by nearly 20 points.

“I’m not being cocky about this,” she said. “But I recognize when polls are fake, and I am confident about my re-election.”

Osborn said the poll shows people are “frustrated with our government and what they see with inflation.” 

“I think Nebraska has an independent spirit,” he said. “I think it always has, regardless of whether you have a D or an R next to your name.”

What will Democrats do?

No Democrat has entered the race. Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb has said her party is considering supporting Osborn’s campaign.

Political observers expect Fischer to paint Osborn as a Democrat in sheep’s clothing. He is a member of the Steamfitters & Plumbers Local #464. He formerly led the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 50G, which pushed for better wages and benefits during a strike against Kellogg’s in Omaha.

Fischer listed more than $2.6 million in campaign cash on hand at the end of September, according to her most recent Federal Election Commission filing. Osborn’s filing showed his campaign had $47,000 cash on hand. 

Landow and other observers said Fischer’s advantages in name ID and fundraising will make it easier for her campaign to define Osborn than for him to define himself. Nearly 60% of the people surveyed had never heard of Osborn, while only 6% said they had never heard of Fischer.

Landow said the Fischer-Osborn poll reminded him of a quip once made about a political race: “The likelihood [of Osborn leading] is just south of slim and just north of none.”