Betting the Farm

Sunday, February 24, 2008

This piece is about the polls the media and the Obama campaign keep using to argue that the Senator is the better bet to beat McCain in the Fall.  Rest assured, the Clinton campaign would be pointing to these same polls if their indications were in her favor.  The question is whether or not we should pay any attention.  Are these polls a reasonable basis for Democratic primary voters to support the candidacy of Barack Obama?  …or Hillary Clinton were the results the other way around?

Take, for example, the Fox News/Opinion Dynamis poll taken February 19th and 20th.  The question asked was, “Thinking ahead to the next presidential election, if the 2008 general election were held today for whom would you vote if the candidates were…”  Only two candidates were presented at a time, Democrat and Republican, and the order of the names was reversed from respondent to respondent.  According to that poll, McCain beats Clinton 47% to 44%, while Obama beats McCain, 47% to 43%.  Good for Senator Obama, so it would appear, but consider the following:

1.          Obviously, the general election is not going to be held today.  A lot is going to happen in the next 8 months during which McCain, the poster boy for experience in general, and national security and foreign affairs in particular, and his entire Republican party will be coming right at Barack Obama.  Do you really believe that voter opinion will not be affected, one way or another, between now and then?

2.          The “margin of error” was plus or minus 3%.  What you think that means is that the results could be off, either way, by no more than 3%.  And it does mean that, sort of, but not exactly.  What the pollsters are saying is that they are 97% certain that their sample is representative of the total population of likely voters.  The problem is, the 97% is a guess on their part, an intelligent, scientifically based guess, but still a guess nonetheless.  If their assumptions about who’s going to vote are correct, and nothing happens between the date of the poll and the election to change the opinions of those likely voters, then the margin of error will only be 3%.  If they’re wrong, it could more, affecting not only the spread, but the direction of the victory they were predicting.  Witness, for example, the inaccuracy of polls take recently, prior to the New Hampshire primary which Senator Obama should have won, but didn’t.  The polls were probably wrong for two reasons:  voter opinion was highly fluid, and their sample of “likely voters” was not, in fact, representative of the total population of actual voters within the 3% margin the pollsters were claiming.

3.          In the two comparisons – McCain/Clinton and McCain/Obama – there were 9% and 10% undecided.  These percentages of undecided voters are 3 or more times the margin of error.  These people may be undecided now, but they’re going to vote for someone on election day.  When they do, the outcome of that election could be completely different than what the pollsters are predicting now, 8 months in advance of the real thing.

4.          More than 121 million of us voted in the last Presidential election.  That’s over 60% of the electorate.  The Fox News/Opinion Dynamics polls interviewed 900 respondents over the phone.  Round numbers, that’s a sample size of .00000743 which, in English, is about ¾ of 1 one thousandth of 1 percent of the voting population – scientifically selected, of course.  (A friend of mine, who studied statistics in graduate school on the way to getting her degree in Sociology, argues vehemently that the sample may be tiny, but, if intelligently selected, still meaningful.  She is a true believer.  I’m not, but pay her respect by including her point of view.  It’s the “if intelligently selected” caveat that concerns me, and the undeniable fact that polls are sometimes wrong, more so the farther in advance of what they are predicting.  The pollsters are sophisticated professional social scientists doing their best, but they’re neither perfect or psychic.)

5.          Roughly 30% of estimated registered voters have been voting in the primaries this election season.  That’s only half of the total that will vote in November.  What does the other half think?  Clearly, most of them don’t care enough to have voted so far.  What does exactly does that portend for the general election?  I haven’t the slightest idea.

6.          In another poll, this one conducted by Financial Dynamics, February 14th through the 17th, of 803 registered voters, the question was different:  “If the election for U.S. President were held today, would you be voting for the Democratic or the Republican candidate?”  Simpler question, without the mention of any candidate names.  Democrats win 46% to 35%, an 11 point spread, but with 5% voting “Neither,” and 14% more “Unsure.”

Confused?  Uncertain about what to think?  My point exactly.  Do you really want to allow these polls to influence who you nominate for President?

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