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Oct
02

Polling

Michael Barone (who has forgotten more about politics than most people know) has one of the more definitive pieces up on the state of political polling that has ever been written.

As a recovering pollster (I worked for Democratic pollster Peter Hart from 1974 to 1981), let me weigh in on the controversy over whether the polls are accurate. Many conservatives are claiming that multiple polls have overly Democratic samples, and some charge that media pollsters are trying to discourage Republican voters.

First, some points about the limits of polls. Random-sample polling is an imprecise instrument. There's an error margin of 3 or 4 percent and polling theory tells us that one out of 20 polls is wrong, with results outside the margin of error. Sometimes it's easy to spot such an outlier; sometimes not.

In addition, it's getting much harder for pollsters to get people to respond to interviews. The Pew Research Center reports that it's getting only 9 percent of the people it contacts to respond to its questions. That's compared with 36 percent in 1997.

Emphasis mine.  Any entry level statistics class (which is where I learned about the fallibility of polling) will tell you that. 

Barone brings up some very valid points.  First.....

Are those 9 percent representative of the larger population? As that percentage declines, it seems increasingly possible that the sample is unrepresentative of the much larger voting public. One thing a poll can't tell us is the opinion of people who refuse to be polled.

Second (and possibly an eye into why the oversampling?).....

But today the percentage of households without land-line phones is increasing. Under federal law, cellphone numbers have to be hand-dialed rather than dialed by computer, as land-line numbers are now even when live interviewers ask the questions.

Cellphone-only individuals tend to be younger and more Democratic than land-line owners. Most pollsters are conducting a set number of interviews with cellphone-only households.

But they can only guess at what percentage of the electorate they'll constitute. Oversample them and you'll get overly Democratic results.

This is a very thought provoking point and one that can be fraught with peril.  It is assumed that most cell phone only households are younger, more liberal households, but that is not automatically the case.  Just as it is not always automatic that older voters tend to be more conservative.

He then hits on some of the methodology of the numbers.

Which, many conservatives have been arguing, pollsters have been getting in polls this month. They point out that Mitt Romney is running ahead among independents in many polls but trails overall.

This can only happen if Democrats have a big lead in party identification, as they did in 2008. In the exit poll then, 39 percent of voters identified themselves as Democrats and 32 percent as Republicans.

In contrast, exit polls showed an even break on party identification in 2004 and 2010. But many September and some earlier polls showed Democrats with an even bigger party identification lead than four years before.

In answer to that we turn to Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post.

It’s easy amid a slew of swing state and national polling that shows President Obama opening up a high single-digit lead over Republican challenger Mitt Romney to conclude that we could be witnessing an electoral blowout in the making.

But, there’s plenty of reasons — historical and financial, mainly — to believe the most likely outcome is a narrowing of the race, rather than a second Obama blowout.

Let’s start with 2008, which was one of the best Democratic years in modern presidential history. Not only did then-candidate Obama galvanize a national movement behind his campaign, he also benefited from the fact that opponent Sen. John McCain could never get out from under George W. Bush’s shadow or convince the American public that he was well-versed on the economy. 

Add to those political environmental factors the fact that Obama raised and spent upwards of $750 million while McCain accepted public financing that limited his spending to $84 million — meaning that Democrats outspent Republicans by as much as 10-1 in some swing states — and it’s clear that Obama hit something close to a Democratic high-water mark in 2008.

So what was that high-water mark? Did Obama win 60 percent of the popular vote? Or 500 electoral votes? Nope.

Obama won 52.9 percent of the popular vote, compared with 45.6 percent for McCain. Obama took 365 electoral votes to 173 for McCain.

Obama’s 52.9 percent of the popular vote was only the second time since 1964 that a Democratic presidential candidate had won 50 percent or more of the national popular vote. (Jimmy Carter got exactly 50 percent in 1976.)  In that same time period, Republican nominees broke the 50 percent popular vote barrier five times (1972, 1980, 1984, 1988 and 2004).

The popular vote story is similar in the three swingiest states of the last two elections: Ohio, Virginia and Florida. Obama won all three of them in 2008 but only in Virginia — where his margin was 6.3 percent — did he score what could be called a decisive victory.  (Obama won Florida by two and a half points and Ohio by four points.) In none of that trio of states did Obama beat McCain by more than 250,000 votes — a remarkable finding given that 3.6 million votes were cast in Virginia, 5.2 million were cast in Ohio and 8 million were cast in Florida.

No one — not even the most loyal Obama allies — would argue that the political environment in 40 days will be anywhere close to as favorable as it was in November 2008.

Emphasis again mine.

So the polls that show are huge Obama lead are indeed outliers.  Are they manipulated?  More than likely - all polling is massaged and manipulated to a point.  It is just a matter of how badly.  Are they used to sway opinion?  Assuredly.  Which is why we need to take them as PART of the information equation and not the whole thing.

There is a lot more to the equation here than just the polls.  Something the agenda media wants you to disregard.

Written by LL.

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