Polls, Projections and Politics

Right From the Start

This is boring stuff. Boring to the point of making your eyes roll back in your head. Boring to the point that you might rather watch the Kardashians on television. But it’s information that, unless you are knee deep in politics, you probably have never come across. So sit down, get comfortable and let’s slog through this.

As the political season enters into high gear we are being inundated with polling information. I don’t think my wife and I have been to a social gathering in the last month that somebody doesn’t comment on a recent presidential poll. Unfortunately the comments generally reflect a lack of understanding of the value of polls, how they are conducted and what they really mean. Because the reference to polls will only increase between now and November 6, 2012, and the poll numbers will be used to try to influence you, it is probably important that we discuss the use and abuse of polling data. In this instance let’s confine our discussion to the “presidential polls” although the comments are equally applicable to all other political polls.

Unless you have been forced to endure an education in Portland Public Schools you will already know that polling is done by a sampling of a target group and, thereafter applying a statistical analysis to that sampling. The validity of a sample often times depends on the demographic information that is gathered and applied to the analysis.

Let’s begin with the target group for a presidential election. If the target group is all voting age people the results of the poll will be interesting but about as accurate as People Magazin identifying Michelle Obama as one of the Most Beautiful Women in the World (as if placing her ahead of Halle Berry wasn’t sufficient to question the accuracy.) The reason simply is that not everyone of voting age is registered to vote and, therefore, will not vote. Unfortunately a large number of the polls taken and broadcast over the summer use this sampling. It is a poll designed to bias not to inform.

A poll based on all registered voters while more accurate is still highly inaccurate because it reflects the views of a large number of people who are highly unlikely to vote. For instance, in Oregon, in 2008, eighty-five percent of registered voters actually cast votes while in 2010 only seventy-two percent actually voted – nearly 600,000 registered voters did not vote. While the views of those registered but not voting might be interesting, they are unimportant in projecting the likely outcome of the election. Going back fifty years indicates that the years in which presidential elections are held usually results in about ten percent more registered voters actually voting than in non-presidential years. Even the advent of “vote-by-mail” has not materially changed either the differential or the total turnout.

A poll based on likely voters (four of four and three of four in the previous four general elections) provides a higher degree of accuracy. Those who have voted routinely in previous general elections are more likely to continue that practice by voting in the next general election. And the key here is voting in the general elections as opposed to primary elections. If the poll doesn’t begin with this targeted group, it is unlikely to provide useful information for the outcome of the election.

But even at that, polls can be and are skewed based on the demographics of those most likely to vote. For instance, in the 2010 election there were 863,300 registered Democrats, 664,100 registered Republicans and 423,800 independents. That breaks down as 41.7 % Democrat, 32.1% Republican, 20.5% Independent, and 5.7% minor parties. But let us assume that only seventy-five percent of the Democrats voted, eighty-five percent of the Republicans, ninety percent of the Independents and 60 percent of the minor parties. If your sample included registered voters you would over sampled likely Democrat voters by three percentage points under sampled Republicans by almost two percentage points under sampled Independents by almost two and one-half percentage points and under sampled other parties by one and one-half percentage points. There have been a number of national polls favoring President Barack Obama cited recently that, upon examination, were shown to have over sampled Democrat voters by as much as eleven percent. The point here is that the accuracy of the poll is dependent on the accuracy of the demographic information as to who is most likely to vote.

To make matters worse, the national media routinely fail to disclose the demographic information necessary to allow us to make informed judgments as to the value of the results. The bias of the national print media, NBC, MSNBC, CNN and to a lesser extent ABC and CBS has been pretty well documented. On the other side of the coin the bias of Talk Radio and the opinion portion of Fox News is also well-known. The news has been democratized and so it is incumbent on all of us to ask the critical questions concerning the polls in order to test their validity.

And finally, the Constitution of the United States does not care about national polls because the president is not elected by a popular vote. Any number of Democrats still haven’t gotten over the fact that while Al Gore won the popular vote, George W. Bush one the electoral vote – that is the popular vote in sufficient states to capture a majority of the electoral votes. Whether, for instance, if Mr. Obama wins a plurality of votes in Oregon, or all of the votes in Oregon, he will still only get seven electoral votes from Oregon. Therefore, national polls, even of registered voters, even of registered voters likely to vote, are of little value when compared to the polls focused on registered voters likely to vote in the so-called swing states – the states where polling indicates that the presidential race remains within the range of the statistical error.

The campaign professionals now refer to these as the “battleground states” and include in their ranks, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and New Hampshire. As the election proceeds it is entirely possible that Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico could be added to that list. The remaining states are pretty much assumed to have locked in their presidential preference and are unlikely to change.

So while the “spin may stop” with Bill O’Reilly, it starts with those who tout polls without disclosing the requisite demographic information.

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Posted by at 05:00 | Posted in 2012 Election, President Obama | 14 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Rupert in Springfield

    Polls are used to drive opinion rather than reflect it, that is true. However I think they have a secondary aspect – polls give “reporters” some sense that they are actually doing their job, reporting facts, hard news. If they are reporting a poll or discussing it, it gives them the sense they are doiing something real.

    Really what polls are is a reflection of the fact that when a Democrat is in office, the White House press corps essentially has a four year vacation and drags out a poll every now and then simply to relieve the boredom.

    Its humiliating for them in a way. They can’t even ask what questions they would like, no matter how banal. The White House tells them the subjects to ask and they follow through. It’s dull work and the fact that even duller statistics are a gleeful reprieve is testament to that.

    When CIA desk jockey Vallerie Plame was named by Bob Novak, we knew Scooter Libbys details down to his shoe size by the end of it. The ramifications were clear, Novaks revelation could have had serious impact, on something, God knows what. Now, on the four year hiatus mandated by the Obama presidency, we go through the motions on White House leaks that are so outrageous, and of such a serious nature they could get killed. Reporters grudgingly launch their boats into the sea of information and dutifully paddle in a circle.

    It’s the same thing with Eric “Body Bag” Holder running guns. The administration won’t release documents on an operation that got hundreds of people killed. The scans the horizon for anything else to report on. The Obama administration points to Mitt Romney and like magic, the focus is on tax returns. Never mind that we have dead bodies on the ground, the fact that Harry Reid made up a charge with no evidence at all requires serious investigation.

    So I think polls are a way of the press not only influencing opinion, but it’s a way for them to feel better about themselves. It can’t be fun sitting it out for four years as the court stenographer rather than the dashing investigative type one fancied in journalism school. So they do dopey polls, ponder over the meaning and ramification, and feel good about what they are doing.

    • ardbeg

      Your prejudice is showing again Rupert. You take a story about polls and turn into a indictment of a non-conservative (evil) administration leaking government secrets by calling Plame a desk jockey. By your reasoning in was no big deal to ‘out’ a desk jockey? Then have a presidential pardon for a co-conspiritor? I bet you have the OPSEC video cued up to run 24-7 on your 60 inch plasma. How whack is your world! Funny, I never got the Libby ‘shoe size’ announcement. Did you get the OPSEC video is wrong on the whole Pakistan Dr. claim?

      • valley person

        Isn’t he weird? And he takes himself seriously. Eeek.

        • Rupert in Springfield

          Actually I don’t. I regard predicting what you guys will do, how you are incapable of criticizing your leaders or ever admitting when you are wrong as a mirthful indulgence.

          Sorry its been getting to you, but I must have my fun.

          • valley person

            Yes, I’m on pins and needles waiting for your next critique. I’m in therapy over it actually. My shrink says you remind me of that annoying neighbor I had years ago who left little ribbons on my dandelions. I thought I had blocked him out but you bring him back.

            He was eventually driven out of the neighborhood, but the psychological scars have not fully healed.

          • 3H

            You keep repeating that we are incapable of criticizing our leaders. It is just as much of a lie now, as it was the first time you uttered it. And each time you repeat it, you make yourself look ever more foolish and evermore ignorant.

            You have become a caricature of yourself. How sad for you.

      • Rupert in Springfield

        I think if you cant see the disparity between the coverage and investigative reporting, as well as the media hang time of Plame vs. Fast and Furious you are the one bringing prejudice to the table.

        When all you can really do is follow my posts just to bring a stream of lame insults you have added in a side order of idiocy as well.

        • ardbeg

          Hey, I agree. The media is biased, no disagreement there. But so are you (biased). The 2 party system sucks and both parties suck. I just find it amazing people either hate what the GOP does (if they are Dems) or hate the Dems (if they are GOP) and you fall right into that description. Your the king of insults by the way, I’d be happy to stop anytime you agree to the same.

  • Bill Sizemore

    There is another aspect of polling that is less known than the facts Larry describes above. I am referring to the way pollsters use “cross tabs” from polls to tell us how a candidate is doing with some subset of the people polled. A pollster might say, “The candidate is especially strong with Republican women,” or “The candidate is strong in the Valley but weak with voters at the coast.” The pollster draws such conclusions by extrapolating, from all 400 people sampled, the numbers for the various subsets of those numbers.
    Now, if polls are conducted properly, which as Larry points out is often not the case, it is amazing how consistently accurate they are at predicting what the outcome will be on election day with a mere 400 person sampling. A 400 sample poll usually predicts the outcome accurately within a margin of error of plus or minus four percent or so, and will prove to be statistically valid 19 out of 20 times. In other words, five percent of the time, polls, even when done properly, are just plain wrong. That’s purely a matter of chance based on probability theory.
    You should laugh, however, if a pollster says, “I can poll 60 Republican women in Oregon and then tell you how a candidate is doing with Republican women across the state.” Or, “I can poll 40 people on the coast and tell you how a candidate is doing with Oregonians who live at the coast.” Pollsters and paid consultants do this all the time, but it is nothing but polling voodoo. The numbers of voters sampled for those two demographics (out of an overall 400 person sampling) are simply too small to be statistically accurate. To really tell us how a candidate is doing with a specific subset, we would have to poll that subset with a 300-400 sampling, say Republican women or 300-400 people at the coast, all of whom are likely voters. Extrapolating the numbers for those subsets from a 400 sample poll borders on dishonesty, but pollsters and consultants do it all the time and candidates swallow the nonsense and pay good money for it.
    This really is boring stuff, I know, but I will give you one example. When I was running against John Kitzhaber in 1998, one of our polls showed me in the low thirties, but I was killing John at the coast. According to our subsets or crosstabs, I was favored by more than 60 percent of the voters at the coast. Sensing that I needed some encouragement, my consultants sent me to the coast to campaign for a few days where I was popular. The problem is, the next poll results showed me still in the low thirties overall, but in the crosstabs I was getting clobbered at the coast by doing better elsewhere.
    A 400 sample statewide poll somehow usually makes a pretty accurate prediction of the outcome, but it does so with subsets that may vary wildly from poll to poll, simply because the number of voters comprising those subsets are by themselves statistically meaningless when considered by themselves.
    Boring stuff? Yes. But many of the people who read this blog are politicos, and I thought knowing this rarely discussed stuff might be helpful to them in their campaigns down the road. Oh, one final note, Rasmussen, the pollster you see on Fox a lot, is head and shoulders above all the others and uses much larger samples for his polls, making his results fall within about a two percent margin of error and his subsets more statistically relevant. When he tells us where things stand, he is far more likely to be accurate than any other pollster I know.

  • valley person

    First rule of polls: If they show your candidate is behind, then find a rationale to discount the data.

    Second rule of polls: If they show your candidate is ahead, then shout it from the rooftops.

    Third rule of polls: Pay attention to the average of all reputable polls and long term trends. Any single poll can be way off. All polls averaged will not be way off.

    In this election, Romney is consistently behind in the average of all polls by about 2 points. The trend line is pretty flat and there are few undecided voters at this point. Unless something changes, some big event, Romney is likely to lose a close election.

    So…see the first rule.

    • Oregon Engineer

      2 points is in-determinant if the probability of error is +/- 4 points..

      • valley person

        That margin of error applies to individual polls, not to the average of many polls taken over many months. Go back and brush up on your statistics book. And read your Nate Silver while you are at it.

    • Grace

      I am a conservative woman and have never received a call from any polling company asking me who I would vote for. I asked the other conservatives I know if they had ever been asked by a polling company who they would vote for. None of them had ever been contacted. All of the conservatives I know work all day long and are not at home during the hours these polling calls are usually dialed. My bets are on a Romney/Ryan victory in November.

      I liked this article from August 12, 2012 which tells you to forget the pollsters.


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