Pollster John Nienstedt Sr. at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design. Photo by Chris Jennewein
Pollster John Nienstedt Sr. at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design. Photo by Chris Jennewein

San Diego pollster John Nienstedt Sr. said Tuesday he expects voter turnout in November to be a record low, below 55 percent in even the high-profile 52nd District Congressional race.

“There’s no excitement at the top of the ticket,” he said. “People are tuned out and there’s no reason to tune in.”

In November 2012, with President Obama up for re-election, turnout among registered voters in San Diego County was 77 percent.

Nienstedt is president of Competitive Edge Research, whose clients are primarily Republican political candidates and backers of ballot measures. He spoke to members of the San Diego Press Club as part of that organization’s newsmakers breakfast series.

He told that journalists that the attack ads appearing in the 52nd District Congressional race may actually encourage voters to turn out. “The more money that’s spent on political ads, negative or positive, the higher the turnout,” he said.

Nienstedt said that while the “horse-race numbers” get most attention, it’s more important for pollsters to understand the dynamics of public opinion behind the raw numbers.

Political polls are a “snapshot in time with a margin of error,” he said. “I want to understand the underlying dynamics of the race.”

He said that even though a poll is accurate, changing public opinion can result in a different outcome on election day. And he defended the accuracy of his 27-year-old firm’s polls despite Americans’ growing reliance on cellphones because his firm uses human researchers to make calls.

“When they do come out, you can trust my numbers,” he said. “I’ve learned one huge lesson and that’s ‘trust the numbers.’”

However, he was critical of automated “robopolls” which are cheaper to conduct but less accurate, with hangup rates as high as 80 percent.

Turning to the future of polling, Nienstedt said online panels show promise but one-on-one calls will still be important. “Ten or 20 years from now…it’s going to look a lot different,” he said. “But nobody has hit upon something that will replace phones.”

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.