Category Archives: Polls

Politics and the “Last Call” Theory of Public Opinion

Thursday, February 16, 2012

President Obama and his crew are very excited by recent polls showing that 50% of the people have a favorable opinion of his performance as President. Only in the wacky world of politics would a 50% approval rating seem like good news. Put another way, the other 50% of the American people think the President sucks at his job. ..Okay, “sucks” may be too strong a term, but I’m trying to make a point. It’s the old half full, half empty dilemma. How would you feel if your employer or lover gave you a 50% favorable rating?

The sad news is that the President may actually think that he’s gaining popularity in recent polls because the economy is getting better, and that it’s getting better because of his programs. Really? Careful, Mr. President, that you don’t succumb to the tendency of all politicians to believe their own hype.
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None of the Above

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

I watched the debate last night. No surprises, not until after the debate which I’ll talk about in a moment.

Barack Obama was his usual endless stream of well spoken drivel, making promises after promises without regard to their feasibility or expense, some of his suggestions ludicrous, others outright dangerous. His rhetoric reeks of naiveté. Absent the requisite experience, he seems sometimes to have developed his programs from reading “Liberalism for Dummies.”

John McCain’s decades of experience have given far better instincts, but he’s not well spoken and his understanding of the economy too simple to be useful.

Neither candidate is acceptable. What is it about our political system that delivers candidates, and then Congressmen, Senators and Presidents, whose experience and skills are so substandard? We need the political version of one of those rulers painted on a stick that helps prevent people who are too short from riding the roller coaster. “If you don’t have at least the following qualifications, don’t bother to apply.” And those standards need to be high.

As for the highlight of the evening, for me it came after the debate during Katie Couric’s discussion which included the results of an instant poll of 516 so called “uncommitted” voters who were “either undecided about who to vote for or who say they could still change their minds.”* I have real questions about polling, particularly during this campaign. The issues are complex and rapidly changing. There are all sorts of newly registered voters. One of the candidates for President is black. One of the candidates for Vice President is a woman who may have some special appeal to working class voters. It’s only one poll. Who knows? But I thought these results were particularly interesting.

Who won the debate?
Obama: 40%, McCain: 26%, Tie: 34%

About each candidate separately,** to what extent do you believe he…

…would make the right decisions about the economy?
Obama: 68%, McCain 48%

…understands the needs and problems of people like you?
Obama: 80% (up from only 59% before the debate), McCain: 44%

…would make the right decisions about the war in Iraq?
Obama: 48%, McCain: 61%

…would bring about real change in the way things are done in Washington?
Obama: 63%, McCain: 38%

…answered the questions he was asked tonight?
Obama: 57%, McCain: 57%

…IS PREPARED FOR THE JOB OF PRESIDENT?
Obama: 58%, McCain: 83% …What?!

No, those last numbers are not a typo. In almost every other category, with the exception of how they might handle the war in Iraq, Senator Obama has a significant lead, and yet 83% of these “uncommitted” voters believe Senator McCain is prepared to be President, versus only 58% who hold the same opinion of Senator Obama.

Not that this carefully selected sample of 516 voters is a perfect or even good indication of total voter thinking throughout our electorate, but they’re still real, cogent, logical people. How can there be so much more confidence in one candidate’s preparedness to be President, without a substantial majority being committed to that same candidate? In fact, these voters were asked one additional question:

If the 2008 presidential election were being held today would you vote for…?
Now Committed to Obama: 15%
Now Committed to McCain: 12%
Still Uncommitted: 72%

You know, I’m beginning to think this campaign doesn’t have anything to do with qualifications… to which many of you are no doubt saying “Duh?” as if I was the very last likely voter to figure that out. It’s about personality, isn’t it, about age, about party affiliation, but not about the experience and qualifications, at least not primarily. With all that we have at stake, this is the way our electorate thinks? Is this the way you would choose a surgeon to perform a life saving operation? Is it any wonder we so often nominate and elect the wrong people – and then have the audacity to blame them, and not ourselves, for how they mismanage our government?

*CBS Post-Debate Poll of Uncommitted Voters.
**Percentages will not add to 100.


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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?

Unlikely Voters

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Turnout for this year’s Presidential primaries has been higher than usual, but still nothing to write home to Mom about.  Among the non-caucus primaries to date, New Hampshire was the standout with an estimated 52.48% of eligible voters going to the polls.  (That’s based on a statistic called “VEP” which stands for estimated “Voting Eligible Population.”)  The closest other state primary was Massachusetts with 38.71%.  New York was the worst performer at 18.83%.  In the other 20 states, voter turnout ranged from 19.25% in Louisiana to 32.57% in Illinois.  Of the total 23 non-caucus primaries held so far, 13 didn’t even manage to turnout 30% of eligible voters.  Six didn’t even make 25%.  How pathetic.  We are a nation where the minority rules.

Why don’t more people vote in the primaries?  For one thing, in some states registered independents, like me, can’t vote in the primaries, but that effect has got to be minor.  The fact that there is no national law requiring employers to give employees time off with pay to vote is a big deal, probably affecting the lower half of the economy, and hourly workers in particular, to a greater extent.  (If we believe the media analysts, more of the people not showing up are more likely Clinton than Obama supporters.)

Understandably, the polls that the candidates use to understand the electorate, and which the media show us with reckless disregard for their impact on voter opinion, these polls are of “likely voters.”  Results identify the percentage of people who say they are going to vote who currently favor this or that candidate, or who admit to being undecided.  There’s so much room for error.  Even if the polls are valid today, the election isn’t, today that is.  Precisely how likely are these people to vote?  And how sure of your preference do you need to be for your response to classified for any specific candidate, or still up for grabs?  Naturally, the campaigns focus their pitch on the undecided, because they’re easier to convince than someone who has already decided, who actually has to change his or her mind to vote for you.

I’m wondering, if by focusing on the undecided, if the campaigns are missing the boat.  You’ve probably heard the term “GOTV,” Get Out The Vote.  Political party regulars have long known the importance of getting their party’s voters to the polls, although crossover voting has become increasingly common.  The trick, obviously, is making sure the voters you get to the polls are actually voting for your candidate, which is easier said than done.  Even during the general election, like the one we’re about to have, when it’s one party against the other, and the contrast between the Republican and Democrat candidates is great, getting out the vote is a process requiring considerable finesse.

In the Bush-Kerry Presidential election of 2004, national turnout was 60.7%, which I understand was higher than it had been since 1968 when Nixon narrowly defeated Humphrey against the backdrop of the Kennedy and King assassinations, and the war in Viet Nam.  60.7%.  Round numbers, that’s twice that, or better, than the voter turnout this primary election season.  Forget about “likely voters” and the “undecided” among them, what about the approximately 30% of eligible voters who are going to vote in November, but not now?

What does a candidate have to do to get these people who would have voted for her or him in the Fall, off their tushes now?  With the Wisconsin, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries coming up, you’d think Senator Clinton’s campaign management would be asking itself that very question.  The answer has got to be contrast.  I’ve thought about it, and it’s got to be that November voters just don’t perceive the difference between the Democratic (or Republican) candidates to be all that great.  As long as one of them – Senator Clinton or Senator Obama – wins in the fall, they’re okay.  Other than that, these one-time-only voters can’t be bothered.

I don’t know, Senator Clinton if you’re listening, if I were trying hard to stop the rock star momentum of my opponent, and no one seemed to care that I was more qualified to be President, I think I’d spend some quality time pitching the differences between me and Senator Obama directly and explicitly, not just to the undecided among the likely voters, but to the voters who haven’t cared enough to participate in the primaries.  Call them on it, in no uncertain terms.

Margin of Error

Saturday, February 9, 2008

It’s Saturday, less than a week after Super Tuesday.  There are Democratic caucuses this weekend which haven’t happened yet, three primaries next week, and two really major ones, in Texas and Ohio, in the first week of March.  The race for the Democratic nominee for President is razor close and far from over.  MSNBC, the cable news channel, is reporting a poll that shows Senator Obama several points ahead of Senator McCain, were they to run against each other, but Senator Clinton even with McCain.  Is there anyone reading this who believes the news of this poll won’t influence some undecided Democratic voters to support Barack Obama, fearing loss of the Presidency to the Republican candidate?  Well, suppose this poll is wrong?  Suppose it doesn’t accurately represent the mindset of the electorate today, let alone ten months from now which in politics is forever.  What we’ve done, to no small extent, is turn over the election of the Democratic nominee to the news media which report these polls.

It’s election season, and polls are everywhere on the regular television and cable news, and in the papers and magazines.  I’m used to it, but I’ve been wondering lately:  What’s the media doing in the business of reporting voter preferences?  Brace yourself.  This is going to be more of an academic piece than I usually write.)

We know why the candidates take polls.  However questionable, polls help the candidates plan and test the effectiveness of their campaigns.  The candidates know the polls can be flawed and misleading, but they take them anyway because they are an important tool, not the only tool by any means, but an important source of information they are desperate to know.  The better they can understand voter reaction to their candidacy, and to the competition, the more effectively they can craft their message and election strategy.  It’s market research.

Journalists are supposed to bring us the news, to tell us what’s happening, without bias and as thoroughly as their particular medium will allow.  As a free society, we believe that a better informed electorate will make more intelligent choices among the people who aspire to run our government, and the programs we will demand and support.  Unfortunately, while polling is certainly a science – an amalgam of applied math (statistics) and the social sciences – it’s an imperfect one.

Think about it for a moment, about how hard it is to poll any electorate – even about something so apparently straightforward as “If the election were held today, for which candidate would you vote?”  If only it were just that simple.  Are the people you survey likely voters?  How committed are they to whatever opinions they express?  How volatile is their thinking, and what precisely could make them change their minds?  Are they representative of all the people who will be voting, or have you inadvertently overlooked some key element of the electorate?  What questions have you mis-phrased or omitted that might have suggested a different interpretation of your subjects’ intentions?  Are they confused or purposing telling you one thing while they’re thinking another?  “Would I have a problem voting for a woman or African American for President?  Of course not.  Don’t be ridiculous.”  In fact, survey researchers are trained not to believe everything they hear, to use control questions to test the accuracy and veracity of their subjects’ responses.

Electorate polling involves highly subjective questions, the answers to which are understandably open to interpretation.  Even the most skilled pollsters can be mistaken – let alone the journalists whose knowledge of the survey process is limited and second hand, at best.  (When was the last time you saw the actual pollster discussing the results of his surveys on television?)  It’s no secret that polls are inaccurate and sometimes outright incorrect.  The media knows this, but uses them anyway – because they attract viewers?  No wait, maybe that’s unfair.  Polls are, after all, data which purport to describe how a campaign is going, and are arguably newsworthy from that point of view.  The problem is that journalists – not commentators, but the ones who claim to be reporting the news – are supposed to tell us what’s actually happening.  They’re supposed to be giving us facts, the tested validity of which meets some minimum standards.  Reporting the results of pre-election polling, by its very nature and the imperfect science on which it is based, goes too far by blurring the distinction between factual reporting and speculation.  It’s basically fortune telling by men and women in suits.

Accurate reporting is a responsibility which reputable journalists take seriously, which is why they’re so careful to verify what they tell us.  Admirable, to be sure, but would they present other important information based on no more certainty than the reliability of, let’s say, the polling the preceded the recent New Hampshire primary?  Yes, the media were apologetic after the primary, not just for the polls they commissioned and reported, but also for all the interpretation, extrapolation and conclusions they offered ahead of the primary – with what impact on the votes their viewers would cast?  The apology was fleeting, and apparently of no particular consequence.

Some newscasters seem to think it’s okay to show us polls as long as they point out that there is a margin of error, that is, that the findings they are showing us are correct within a handful of percentage points either way.  Even if the people watching are paying attention, and adjust their conclusions accordingly, which I doubt, they’re missing the point.  “Margin of error” simply refers to how representative a sample may be of the population it represents.  It’s only an average concept.  It doesn’t mean that the population from which the sample was selected is the right one, or that the questions asked were well designed, or interpreted properly, or that the findings of the poll today will be relevant tomorrow when the actual polls open.  In many of these cases, the undecided voter block alone is large enough to change the outcome of the election, even if the pre-election polls are dead on, which they’re not.

Warning us about the margin of error is just avoiding the question.  Are the legitimate media applying the same rigorous journalistic standards to the polls they present, as they do when they vet the other information they report?

The polls may tell us what the electorate is currently thinking, but let’s be honest.  The primary reason pollsters ask voters who they support before an election is to predict the results.  Since when are journalists supposed to be in the business of predicting anything?  Their job is to tell us what is happening, what they know for sure, and let us draw our own conclusions.

It wasn’t that long ago that the television networks were reporting exit polls before the precinct doors shut locally, and election returns from one state before the polls closed in other time zones.  Maybe it’s time they reconsidered their policy of reporting polls for the same reasons.