Analysis: What the poll results mean

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Knowing the numbers is one thing. Knowing what they mean is another.

Jacob Brower, publisher

Here are the five major things we should take away from the polling results in today's edition:

1. These races are close. Real close. Former highway patrolman Travis Hilburn has a slight lead outside the margin of error in the Barry County sheriff's race. If Hilburn is on the low end of the margin of error, and former FBI agent Gary Davis is on the high end, Hilburn's lead is less than half a percent. Cassville police officer Danny Boyd is only 0.19 percent behind Davis. There is a larger gap between Boyd and the No. 4 and No. 5 candidates, but we wouldn't be shocked to see Barry County deputy Terry Meek -- or even Cassville officer James A. Smith -- take the nomination with a strong push in the coming weeks.

In the public administrator race, only 1.59 percent separates Andy Reavis from Rodney Hughes, and less than 1 percent separates Hughes from Keith Daniels. This race is a tie by any statistical measure. The election will be won by the candidate who does the best job of getting his name in front of voters in the homestretch.

2. There are still a lot of votes up for grabs. We were surprised that so many voters are undecided this close to Election Day -- 37 percent in the sheriff's race, and 50 percent in the public administrator's race. That means the candidates have a lot of work to do in the next 20 days. So do we.

3. Don't read too much into Democratic sheriff candidate Justin Ruark's numbers vs. a generic Republican candidate. We were on the fence about including this question in the poll, then on the fence again about publishing its results. But, when in doubt, we err on the side of transparency. "Generic Republican" (or "Generic Democrat," for that matter) always polls better than a real living, breathing candidate -- just ask Republicans and Democrats who aren't pleased with Trump and Hillary, respectively.

Make no mistake: Ruark is the underdog in November's general election in ruby red Barry County. But the race is not nearly as lopsided as these poll numbers indicate.

There is also a lot to be said about sheriff races being non-partisan. Sheriffs enforce laws, they don't make them. Take away party labels, and we would be interested to see how Ruark stacks up against the field. Unfortunately, Missouri sheriff elections don't work that way.

4. No sheriff or public administrator nominee will obtain a majority vote. Assuming the undecideds break roughly the same way as those who have made up their minds (an assumption, to be sure, but not an unreasonable one), Hilburn will win with less than 25 percent of the vote, and Reavis will win with 27 percent of the vote. Three out of four voters will have cast their votes for someone else in both races. Missouri is in desperate need of a runoff election system.

5. Why did we ask for approval ratings of officeholders not seeking re-election? The simple answer: We already had Barry County voters on the phone, and polling ain't cheap.

There are two clear takeaways: One, Barry County voters are generally pleased (or indifferent) regarding the county's current officeholders. Secondly, the longer one is in office, the less likely voters are to be on the fence about his or her performance. Not that we needed a poll to tell us that, but it was good to put numbers to it. Take the 21 percent of voters who have no opinion on the performance of Sheriff Mick Epperly, who took office 20 years ago, compared to the 45 percent who have no opinion on Prosecutor Amy Boxx, who is not yet halfway through her first four-year term.

This is possibly Barry County's most important election cycle in a generation, and we look forward to seeing how it plays out in the next 20 days.

Educate yourself, and vote.

Jacob Brower is the publisher of the Cassville Democrat. He has 16 years of experience covering local elections in southwest Missouri and surrounding states. He is president of Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, and serves on the Missouri Press Association's board of directors. He can be reached at jbrower@cassville-democrat.com, or 417-847-2610.

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