National View: Could the Polls Be Wrong?

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I spent far more time than perhaps I should have yesterday, reading not only polls but arguments on both sides of the issue about whether the polls are right.  The bottom line is that those who claim that the polls are wrong and that Romney will win, may not be wrong necessarily.

Within the 30 to 40 percent chance I would give Romney is contained a lot of the scenarios that Republicans and a few prominent Republican strategists have suggested.

That said, I still believe that most likely President Barack Obama is poised for a close but decisive enough reelection.

Yesterday, there were 12 national polls as of about 6 pm that came out.  Three of them – Politico, CNN, and Rasmussen – showed a tie race.  The other nine showed between a 0.3 and a 3.2 point Obama lead.

The average of those polls was a 1.3 point lead which marks a slight uptick for Obama over polls released in the immediate aftermath of the decisive Romney victory in the first debate.

These national polls are now correlated well with a slew of battleground state polls released late in the week, the overwhelming majority of which favored Obama by a narrow margin.

In order to believe that these polls – conducted by different polling firms – are all wrong you have to believe that there is a systematic error with them.

One of the key points in contention is that the polls that favor Obama seem to include a higher percentage of Democratic voters than the 2008 election.

There is a big debate over whether a pollster should assign a weight to partisan identification and essentially assume that you can know the partisan breakdown of the election, or whether partisan ID is fluid and something that you need to measure.

This debate I first saw in 2004 when the roles and numbers were reversed, and it has reemerged this year.

The problem with weighting or assigning  breakdown of party identification is that the balance can fluctuate in the electorate and that is part of what a poll needs to capture.  There is no steady breakdown and, in fact, if you track voters over time their party ID actually fluctuates widely in the middle.

I was surprised that while most pollsters and a lot of political scientists believe you should allow party ID to float, most political insiders as polled by the National Journal thought otherwise – although there was a heavily-partisan split with Democratic insiders only slightly in agreement and Republican insiders strongly so.

Here where I think this debate really misses the mark.  So you take a poll with a random sample of people.  Most polls look at demographic groups and anchor them to census data to make sure they are representative samples.

They then discern voter preference and also, through a battery of questions, determine the likelihood of their voting.

It is very true that as you move up the scale, from registered to likely to certain voters, the sample favors Romney more strongly.

But here’s the problem for those who believe that the polls are wrong – nowhere is there an indication that there is going to be a tsunami for Romney.

If there were a wave forming, the polls ought to be able to capture it.  In 2008, the polls were pretty accurate in predicting the outcome and these same polls were able to capture the Republican tide in 2010.  So you’re going to tell me that there is a huge wave that somehow the polls are missing?

Let’s go further.  There is a poll that does weight by party ID – that has been the Rasmussen Poll.  All year, the Rasmussen Poll has be tilted well to the right of other polls by about 2.8 points.  In 2010, they were about 5 points to the right of the actual results.

One of the other limitations of Rasmussen has been their exclusion of cell phone only voters, which now according to the same research accounts for about 30% of the electorate.  They do supplement that with the inclusion of online surveys, but online surveys are far less reliable.

It would appear that cell phone only households are anywhere from six to ten points more likely to support Obama than landline households.

Those using Rasmussen as their baseline will be dismayed to note that, even they are showing a tie race in their poll released on Sunday.

And here is a final note on the polls – trends are perhaps more important than absolute numbers at times.  If the polling company is using the same methodology, at least within a given election, tracking results over time tells you the trend.

The trend over the last two weeks was a slight uptick for Obama.  The last batch of national polls matches the earlier batch of state polls.

If you believe the polls are wrong, fine, but when you see Rasmussen’s poll at a tie, you know about where things stand.

Moreover, we can look at trends from Romney’s tracking polls.

As we noted yesterday, Jan Crawford of CBS News reports: “For eight straight days, polls showed him picking up support. The campaign’s internal polling, which is using different turnout models than most public polls, had him on solid ground in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Iowa. He had a slight lead or was tied in Ohio, New Hampshire and Wisconsin and was in striking distance in Pennsylvania, a state Republicans hadn’t won since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

“Those leads in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Iowa still hold in the internal polls, campaign sources say, but Romney’s movement flattened out or, as the campaign likes to say, ‘paused.’ Nevada is now off the table, and those neck-and-neck swing states are even tighter.”

Again, what is the trend here?  Romney’s own internal polls show the trend is moving toward Obama.

Putting this all together, I think that Obama is favored and he has a small but real lead, but there is still a 30 to 40 percent chance (at least) that Romney will win.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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33 thoughts on “National View: Could the Polls Be Wrong?”

  1. David M. Greenwald

    I don’t sense the same sense of apathy on the left that existed two years ago.

    “This second term election of an incumbent President that has disappointed so many is not likely to capture the same enthusiasm as did his initial election. “

    I think there is a danger of reading your own bias into your analysis here. You are correct that the numbers will not be as high as they were four years ago, but you are wrong to assume that polling can’t capture that.

  2. Rifkin

    Most of your piece regards the national popular vote which will not decide the winner. As Al Gore knows, what counts is the electoral college vote, and that is a result of what happens in the state votes, especially those handful of states which are close.

    Unless something quite unexpected happens on Tuesday, Barack Obama will handily win the electoral college. Nate Silver, whose analysis is far smarter than any single pollster’s, says in today’s New York Times that Obama should win roughly 307.2 to 230.8. Silver gives Obama an 86.3% chance of being re-elected.

    I can see a few things affecting the expected and the unexpected. For one, Republican legislators have successfully introduced a number of new laws intended to depress Democratic turnout.

    One of the more interesting of these is the change they made with regard to early voting in Florida. In 2008, record numbers of black voters helped Obama carry that state. A great percentage of the marginal black voters–that is, people who usually don’t vote but did in 2008–voted early. Black church groups and Democratic operatives and so-called civil rights activists used buses and vans and jitneys and private cars to ferry marginal black voters to the polls the Sunday before the General Election to vote for Obama. But this year, knowing how effective that operation was in Florida, the Republican legislature voted to shut down early voting earlier. Yesterday, the last day of church services for most black Christians before the election, there was no more early voting.

    Nate Silver gives Mr. Romney a 56% chance of winning that state. Silver has Mr. Obama losing by just 0.3% in the Sunshine State. So if the changed Florida law suppresses marginal Democratic turnout, it should not affect Mr. Silver’s electoral college projection. But if the turnout in Florida this year is like it was in 2008, Obama could win a close vote there.

    A suppressed Democratic voter turnout could help Mr. Romney win in five states where he is now projected to lose by less than 4%: Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia. If all those break in favor of the challenger, Romney might just be able to get 270 electoral college votes.

    Most likely is that Tuesday night Mr. Obama will get over 270. But I expect in a half dozen states, the counts will be close enough that no winner in those places will be declared for a week or two. I do not expect we will have a replay of the 2000 election, where it all comes down to one state. But again, if everything breaks Romney’s way, it is possible that neither man will have 270 on Tuesday night and it will take a few weeks to determine the winner in a number of states, and in that scenario the winner could be Mitt Romney.

    [img]http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-ZNNu8YBO5Xc/UH8wlf-SmhI/AAAAAAAANLM/Hpkop5DwoIY/s1600/magic.png[/img]

  3. Rifkin

    [i]”This second term election of an incumbent President that has disappointed so many is not likely to capture the same enthusiasm as did his initial election.”[/i]

    Jeff, how does this square with the numbers you show in 2000 and 2004? If a second term suppresses enthusiasm compared with the first term hope and desire of the party out of power winning office, then 2004 should have had a lower turnout than was the case in 2000. But in fact in 2004, despite troubles abroad, President Bush was re-elected more easily than he was in 2000.

  4. David M. Greenwald

    Rich: Good points. I would make this point: I used the national polls to illustrate the trend and debunk the bias myth, but I think the same applies at the state level. I don’t discount all your points about statewide suppression methods and we’ll have to see how that plays out.

    It is interesting you use the 2004 example – that’s been my baseline comparison point for this election for quite some time. I think there are similar dynamics and ironically enough had there been a Vanguard back then, I would have sounded a lot like Jeff. But I was wrong in 2004 and I suspect Jeff will be wrong in 2012.

  5. David M. Greenwald

    “Maybe this is a problem with my computer: But if not, why does Jeff’s “voter turnout” post keep moving?”

    Not just your computer, the tech guys are trying to fix the time stamp and that may be impacting it.

  6. Frankly

    The issue is voter turnout.

    See the following:

    [img]http://www.cscdc.org/miscjeff/voterturnout.jpg[/img]

    This second term election of an incumbent President that has disappointed so many is not likely to capture the same enthusiasm as did his initial election. There is just no way that there are as many likely Democrat voters this time around… but the all the polls that swing toward Obama have the same or even a higher percent of likely Democrat voters.

    That is the danger here. I’m sure the Democrat Party apparatus bolstered with hundreds of thousands of “free” tax-payer funded public employee union campaign labor will round up plenty of poor and non-English speaking people to cast their reliable vote for the Messiah of government largess. However, most experts agree that it would be highly unlikely that this election turnout is anything close to 2008 for Democrats. It might be a record for GOP voter turnout, but not Democrats.

  7. Michael Harrington

    Week before last I was in Alabama to inspect an aircraft engine at the manufacturer. The engineers told me that since Florida is just a few miles to the East, they got the campaign spillover in the media. Pretty fierce, and obnoxious they said. I watched the local channel at the hotel, and because that channel also covered the western Florida panhandle, I saw numerous high-pressure ads from the campaigns for federal offices. Ugh.

    I was also recently in Texas with some aviation and marine investigators, one from Ohio. She said it was simply terrrible, the barrages of ads, phone calls, and knocks at the door. It’s been going on for months, she said.

    Last week I spoke with an aviation insurance claims rep on the other side of a case from me. He is based in Colorado. We get along fine, as I usually do with the opposition, and we talk about the presidential election. He also has been assaulted by the campaigns. He said it feels like stalking …

    I don’t know if there is a solution for that ghastly process.

  8. Robb Davis

    Jeff – I understand the case you are trying to make about voter turnout and I will be interested to see what tomorrow’s vote brings in this regard. However, I do not see how this comment is germaine to your argument nor what you are trying to say with it:

    “I’m sure the Democrat Party apparatus bolstered with hundreds of thousands of “free” tax-payer funded public employee union campaign labor will round up plenty of poor and non-English speaking people to cast their reliable vote for the Messiah of government largess.”

    *Are you suggesting there is something illegal about the actions of the Democratic Party? If so, say so and present your evidence for that.
    *Are you suggesting that public employee unions should not engage in get out the vote campaigns? Is so, why do you think they should not? Should those rules apply to any organized group that attempts to get the vote out?
    *Are you suggesting that poor people are uninformed about the issues that affect them or that they should not vote what is in their interests? If the latter, why should they be different from anyone else?
    *Are you suggesting that poor people should not be allowed to vote because they vote blindly? If so, are you suggesting that there be some “means testing” to determine who is “fit” to vote?
    *Are you suggesting that there is a significant non-English speaking population that is voting in the election? Or do you have a problem with people voting if English is their second language and this might mean they could benefit from assistance in their native tongue to understand the ballot? If so, why should these folks be excluded?

    I simply want to know why you had to add this section to an otherwise interesting response. I don’t find it useful and it strikes pretty close to home because I have close family members who are poor and some who speak English poorly. Interestingly, they are almost all voting for Romney or not voting at all. Or are there “acceptable” poor people and “unacceptable” poor people (in terms of their ability to vote)? Will you be able to help me distinguish who they are?

  9. Frankly

    [i]I simply want to know why you had to add this section to an otherwise interesting response.[/i]

    Rob, in 2008, Democrats organized to bus thousands of people to the polls to register and vote. Many of these people were poor and minority. Many of the minority voters did not speak English, or did not speak it very well. The Democrats gave free transportation in areas and with demographics that would more likely vote Democrat.

    My point was that these demographics are more likely to vote Democrat, but there are more of these people unhappy with Obama and the economy in 2012, and fewer people motivated to go out and get them and bus them to the polls.

    I don’t want to exclude any legitimist voter from voting. I don’t have any issues with non-English speaking voters. However, they need to comprehend the issues and the positions well enough to have a well-informed opinion. I would worry about their translators on the bus.

  10. Rifkin

    Jeff: [i]”Many of the minority voters did not speak English, or did not speak it very well. … I don’t want to exclude any [b]legitimist[/b] voter from voting.”[/i]

    I have to agree with you, Jeff. Those illegal alien voters incorrectly use words like ‘legistimist.’

    In case you are not well read in French history, the Legitimists were royalists in post-revolutionary France who believed that the French king should directly descend from the Bourbon family. In later years, the term Legitimist was applied with intentional irony by republicans in England to Tories who favored greater powers for Queen Victoria.

    In lower case ‘legitimist’ can be used (although it is somewhat obscure) to mean anyone who supports a legitimate authority, not necessarily royal power. But that is not how you used it above. So I now question whether you are an illegal alien or not.

    [img]http://img68.imageshack.us/img68/4158/r2094497994cu6.jpg[/img]

    Do you have papers proving the date you swam across the Rio Grande? Can you pass an English exam which I compose and proctor?

  11. David M. Greenwald

    [quote]I don’t want to exclude any legitimist voter from voting. I don’t have any issues with non-English speaking voters. However, they need to comprehend the issues and the positions well enough to have a well-informed opinion. I would worry about their translators on the bus.[/quote]

    I know a number of people who do not speak English well – that does not mean they are not fairly familiar with the issues and in fact know a quite a bit about politics.

  12. Frankly

    Rich: Thanks for the history and definition of the word “legitimist”. Of course I meant to write “legitimate”.

    [i]Do you have papers proving the date you swam across the Rio Grande? Can you pass an English exam which I compose and proctor?[/i]

    Rhetorical? My family tree connects to Daniel Boone of Kentucky. My relatives might have tried to swim the English Channel at some point, but not the Rio Grande… that I am aware of.

    “Swing Vote”, a poorly done Kevin Costner movie, covered a related concept that we should all care about. In this movie, by some strange twist of political events, Costner’s character is the final vote that would determine the outcome of the election.

    I have also had the discussion with my two sons over their opinion that their vote does not really count.

    My point here is that a single bit of voter fraud matters a great deal. I think we should view voting rights as sacred and go extreme to ensure that every voter is legitimate and every vote is legitimate. I think the concern that young people, poor people or non-English-speaking people may not vote unless they have extra help, should be significantly superseded by the need to prevent any fraud. Because without very, very strong assurances that the system is robust and fraud-free, there will be more and more legitimate voters that stop voting because they think their vote will not count (e.g., wiped out by the faudulent vote in opposition to their vote).

  13. Frankly

    [i]I know a number of people who do not speak English well – that does not mean they are not fairly familiar with the issues and in fact know a quite a bit about politics.[/i]

    Good point.

    To add to that, I know quite a few foreigners that know more about American politics than do many of their American peers. I am especially impressed with young foreigners… as they are much better able to hold a conversation about politics than are many American kids their age.

    I would venture a guess that most of those that know the issues well and know quite a bit about politics can probably get themselves to the polling place without a free Democrat Party-provide bus ride.

  14. Don Shor

    Evidently Republicans have to hire their ‘volunteers’….[url]http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1112/83330.html?hp=l1[/url]

    As long as preventing the minuscule amounts of proven voter fraud doesn’t massively disenfranchise people, fine. But somehow I doubt the motives of Republicans in this regard.

  15. Frankly

    [i]Evidently Republicans have to hire their ‘volunteers'[/i]

    That is what you have to do unless you are a Democrat that has “free” union labor to exploit for campaign purposes.

    [i]”But somehow I doubt the motives of Republicans in this regard.”[/i]

    Don, so which demographic should Republicans exploit for voter fraud? Maybe they can go into those southern areas with all those white, racist, bible-thumpers and bus them to a polling place while preaching the sins of liberalism and the virtues of conservatism… right.

    The Republicans have a good reason to be weary of Democrat voter fraud. Apparently all Obama needs to do is to hand out free “Obama phones” to earn him a reliable vote.

    [url]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpAOwJvTOio[/url]

    How can a good Republican compete with that?

  16. Don Shor

    Maybe they could compete by handing out free phones? Or by paying $15 an hour? I don’t know, Jeff.

    Just curious: why did you choose to bring racism into this discussion?

  17. David M. Greenwald

    [quote]I would venture a guess that most of those that know the issues well and know quite a bit about politics can probably get themselves to the polling place without a free Democrat Party-provide bus ride. [/quote]

    If you were the Democratic party and your election depended on getting those people to vote, why would you take that chance?

  18. Frankly

    [i]Just curious: why did you choose to bring racism into this discussion[/i]

    Don, I don’t know what you are talking about. I didn’t bring racism into the discussion.

    [i]If you were the Democratic party and your election depended on getting those people to vote, why would you take that chance?[/i]

    Where do you draw the line? At some point it is just hunting for bodies that can pull the lever for you.

    If a person that knows the issues well and knows quite a bit about politics does not arrange for transportation to a polling place on election day, I would say that that person does not care enough to vote. Not voting is a right too.

    There is no moral high ground here. Both Parties could be responsible for voter fraud. However, the opportunities for voter fraud are much stronger for Democrats than for Republicans. And, the fact that Democrats reject voter ID is a strong indication that they worry about the impact of clean elections.

  19. eagle eye

    Polls and Voting Machines:
    It’s hard to take much interest in the polls since this election might be decided by rigged or mis-programmed voting machines.
    Romney’s good friends own some of the voting machines in swing states so that might be another factor deciding the outcome.

  20. rusty49

    “It’s hard to take much interest in the polls since this election might be decided by rigged or mis-programmed voting machines.
    Romney’s good friends own some of the voting machines in swing states so that might be another factor deciding the outcome.”

    So far the only problems I’ve heard of were machines that were showing an Obama vote when the voter was choosing Romney.

  21. Rifkin

    [i]” this election might be decided by rigged or mis-programmed voting machines.”[/i]

    Where is there any evidence at all that there are ‘rigged’ or ‘programmed’ voting machines? This sounds like a spurious and insubstantial charge. I am open to any solid evidence you have, of course.

  22. Rifkin

    Re: Republicans pay their workers; Democrats don’t–

    Don, that is total nonsense. The “unpaid” Democratic volunteers are largely unionized workers who have intentionally corrupted the Democratic Party to benefit themselves. They effectively make their incomes based on winning elections. They don’t make their livings based on a market-based skill. It’s not as if they are motivated to work in politics by a desire to advance the public interest. So it is total folly to claim those “volunteers” are not getting paid. They are.

  23. Don Shor

    Specious reasoning. Are you saying they are doing their campaign work on the clock? If not, they are no more being paid for their volunteer work than anyone else. Are they acting out of self-interest? Of course, to some extent. Politics is largely a process of interactions between different interest groups. Union workers, like all other workers, are part of a larger interest group. You and Jeff like to single them out as somehow uniquely self-interested political actors.

  24. Don Shor

    What do Pete Wilson, Tom Bradley, and Phil Angelides have in common? They were all beneficiaries of very large ongoing campaign contributions from development interests that wanted favorable consideration of their large land-development plans. Those land developers, in turn, benefited handsomely from the development (in San Diego and Los Angeles at least) of downtown and peripheral properties.
    So the developers and their employees and the many related businesses ‘effectively [made] their incomes based on winning elections’.
    Who give money to the Republican party, and why? Who is spending all this money on independent expenditures on behalf of both parties? As I’ve said before, I’m pretty neutral about unions. I consider them to be a specific interest group with the narrow interests of their members, and I understand that is causing problems at the municipal level. But I don’t consider them the only, or the worst, interest groups acting in politics today.
    I think it is very likely that the union members who are canvassing and phoning and doing all that volunteer stuff are working on their own time. I believe it would be unethical for them to do otherwise, possibly illegal. Possibly there are abuses of that. Possibly also, employees of private firms are being directed to act or vote in particular ways. Possibly business owners are suggesting that continued employment might depend on it. I don’t know if that is legal, but it is questionable ethics.
    I understand the point you make repeatedly about public employee unions. I agree the connection between them and officeholders probably needs to be severed. But I don’t think they are the only problem in our system.

  25. Jim Frame

    [quote]I don’t want to exclude any [legitimate] voter from voting. I don’t have any issues with non-English speaking voters. However, they need to comprehend the issues and the positions well enough to have a well-informed opinion.[/quote]

    I’m don’t believe that even a majority of American voters — let alone just non-English speakers — have a well-informed opinion. I think a large portion of the electorate casts its votes based on criteria like party affiliation, the way a candidate “feels” as a result of some sound bite uttered during the campaign, or the way their friends/relatives/neighbors vote. Voters certainly can’t make an informed judgment based on speeches or campaign literature; both consist almost entirely of pablum, carefully-shaded statements designed to obfuscate or mislead, and promises that can’t be kept. Toss in a smattering of outright lies that the candidate hopes will get overlooked, and there you have a modern-day political campaign.

    If the American electorate were well-informed, it wouldn’t put up with the corporatist duopoly that’s run the county for the last 50 years, and that has effectively locked out third-party competition. Instead, we’re stuck with the “lesser of two evils” choice that confronts us again and again. There are certainly differences between the two major parties, but both are beholden to big-money interests that trump those of the majority on most matters of importance.

    So I don’t have a problem with poor people getting bused to the polls to vote for the candidate they perceive to best represent their interest, even if that perception is based on thin evidence. They’re no less well-informed than many voters of the more comfortable classes.

    .

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