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Polling Results: Help or Hype?

Trying to take some of the confusion and misdirection out of political coverage.

(This is my first Patch blog. Hope you dig it).

Doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or Democrat - each day’s new deluge of polling results from the news media has to be driving us all nuts. How can Romney be 3% points up on a Thursday and 3% behind on a Friday? Did 6% of the US voting population suddenly change their minds overnight????

I’m pretty sure something else is going on here:  It has to do with the ratings-hunger of news media outlets and their inclination to hype the “horse-race.” One way they do this is to scan the day’s polling results from various sources and “cherry-pick” the ones they like best.

Result: we’re fed apples-to-oranges comparisons from day-to-day – “Robo-Phone Survey A” (with a small sample size and few questions) gets compared with “Phone Interview Survey B” (with an average sample size and a different order of questions) and this, in turn, is followed by “Mail-in Survey C” (with a huge sample size and long list of questions). It should come as no surprise that polling results over time bounce around like Angry Birds.


This isn’t to say that polls can’t be illuminating and useful – they just have to be used wisely. Here are a few examples of how to do just that:

  • Bookmark the Real Clear Politics website (www.realclearpolitics.com) and
    check it regularly. They post and track all the various polling results (&
    also provide survey dates and sample size). They do this both nationally and
    for a dozen or so key battleground states.
  • Zero in on two specific factors: (1) polling results from the same source over a period of time.  (for example, I like to track  the latest Rassmussen polling data along with earlier Rassmussen results to see if Obama’s or Romney’s lead is widening, narrowing or staying the same. FOX, CBS, NBC and WSJ also poll regularly). (2) Have any new results been posted within the past week? (Sometimes the most recent statewide data may be more than a month old).
  • Factor in Sample Size from each poll – Small samples tend to result in bigger statistical “bounce.” Results from larger surveys tend to be more stable from month to month.

Be skeptical whena headline announces a sudden dramatic shift in voter sentiment. (It could just be MSNBC, FOX or CNN looking to stir things up). Use a website like Real Clear to fact check the polling date. More often than not, you’ll discover that little if anything has changed very much. That said – reach for the Maalox and enjoy the horse-race.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

JD July 24, 2012 at 10:52 PM
Yeah any good polling organization is going to use research methods that account for the possibility of skewed results and small sample sizes, the main purpose of the margin of error, so there should be no worries about statistical inaccuracies if you're looking at something coming from Rasmussen, Gallup, etc. The trick is for the viewer to understand what any singular poll truly represents, and that is a "snapshot in time" as many pundits like to say. It is important to recognize that polls are typically administered over a period that is a few days or weeks prior to the actual release of the results. A good illustration would be to look at tracking poll numbers for candidates during the Republican primary season. It has always been pretty clear that Herman Cain was not going to get the Republican nomination. Yet, his poll numbers would spike from time to time, the result of some highly successful speech or fundraiser that happened to occur during the period that said poll was gathering its data. A political poll can only be representative of data it has had the ability to obtain. Polls make no assumption of future events.
Mac July 26, 2012 at 02:07 AM
@JD “Polls make no assumption of future events.” Look to John McCain as a prime example. He was a viable candidate for President with some respectable, but rather stagnate poll percentages. Then he said "Sarah Palin" and for some reason his percentages soared. Then she said "You betsha" and McCain immediately became a footnote in ancient history. Polls are no different than politics. They are designed to be anything the designer wants them to be.
Willy Nilly July 27, 2012 at 03:37 PM
This election is a joke. Obama is an illegitimate "president" that was not even born here. He is a foreigner with a forged birth certificate, and thus, all of his acts should be nullified. He's a sick member of the globalist cabal. Mittens Romney is the same, he helped author the toxic socialist takeover of healthcare. Time to vote the bums out and elect PRESIDENT RON PAUL!
JD July 27, 2012 at 08:49 PM
@Mac Organizations such as Rasmussen and Gallup don't just create polls out of thin air for a purpose. Campaign officials find the polls that project the image they want projected and cast other information aside. Don't shoot the messenger.
Mac July 27, 2012 at 10:53 PM
I have no reason to doubt your endorsement of Rasmussen and Gallup as I know very little about their polling procedures. However, I've experienced enough politics to be a bit jaded about taking anything involving politics at face value. And that includes political polling. While I respect your insight into professional polling, very few of us spend much time doing any more than glancing at poll percentage results. In a society that is more likely to know the name of Snookie's baby than the fact NJ has a Lt. Gov., with a name of her own even, knowledgeable poll results have little value in how Americans live their lives, no matter how they view them.
Ed Batewell July 28, 2012 at 12:21 AM
Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight, has the most accurate prediction model for elections. (He's also well known in the baseball / sabremetrics world, where he first gained fame by creating PECOTA.) He's transparent in his analysis, and achieves near-perfect accuracy by aggregating and weighting polls in a statistical model that he describes in great detail and updates constantly. Reading his stuff is not only a very accurate prediction of where things stand today and where they're projected to stand on November 6th, but also quite an education in statistical analysis. * More about FiveThirtyEight: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FiveThirtyEight * Nate Silver's election forecast and accompanying column: http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/
Mac July 28, 2012 at 01:13 AM
Interesting sites. They're going to take more than a quick scan though. Maybe an evening next week while relaxing after another delicious roast from Bruno's.
Jeff Gollin July 28, 2012 at 01:20 PM
Mac - I don't endorse or not endorse any polling operation - I was just issuing a cautionary word and offering a couple of suggestions for coping with the confusion that misinterpretation can generate.
Jeff Gollin July 28, 2012 at 01:21 PM
Ed - Thanx for the link.
Peggy Devlin Blazewicz July 29, 2012 at 08:39 PM
As a mathematician and former financial analyst I know that numbers can say whatever you want. Scott Rasmussen is a frequent guest on the far right Fox News Channel and John Mcintrye, founder of realclearpolitics is very conservative. I would be very surprised if these polls are not biased towards conservatism.
Jeff Gollin July 30, 2012 at 12:42 AM
Peg - No doubt there's a degree of bias - some political; some to boost ratings & some technique/sampling shortcuts to keep costs down. I suspect (but can't prove) that numbers are sometimes jerryrigged in an "opposite direction" (i.e. lowballing a preferred candidate early-on in order to make his/her numbers look better later on when it counts. It's not always the pollsters; sometimes it's the media trying to support a contrived narrative by cherrypicking the polling results they prefer.

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