Thought this “caveat emptor” piece on polling was interesting and informative:
Barone: When it comes to polls, readers beware
September 29, 2012 | 8:00 pm
By Michael Barone
As a recovering pollster (I worked for Democratic pollster Peter Hart from 1974 to 1981), let me weigh in on the controversy over whether the polls are accurate. Many conservatives are claiming that multiple polls have overly Democratic samples, and some charge that media pollsters are trying to discourage Republican voters.
First, some points about the limits of polls. Random-sample polling is an imprecise instrument. There’s an error margin of 3 or 4 percent and polling theory tells us that one out of 20 polls is wrong, with results outside the margin of error. Sometimes it’s easy to spot such an outlier; sometimes not.
In addition, it’s getting much harder for pollsters to get people to respond to interviews. The Pew Research Center reports that it’s getting only 9 percent of the people it contacts to respond to its questions. That’s compared with 36 percent in 1997.
Interestingly, response rates are much higher in new democracies. Americans, particularly in target states, may be getting poll fatigue. When a phone rings in New Hampshire, it might well be a pollster calling.
Are those 9 percent representative of the larger population? As that percentage declines, it seems increasingly possible that the sample is unrepresentative of the much larger voting public. One thing a poll can’t tell us is the opinion of people who refuse to be polled.
Then there is the problem of cellphone-only households. In the 1930s and 1940s, pollsters conducted interviews in person, because half of households had no phone or (your grandparents can explain this) a party-line phone.
By the 1970s, phone ownership was well nigh universal and pollsters mostly phased out in-person interviewing. Phone interviews are much cheaper and quicker.
But today the percentage of households without land-line phones is increasing. Under federal law, cellphone numbers have to be hand-dialed rather than dialed by computer, as land-line numbers are now even when live interviewers ask the questions.
Cellphone-only individuals tend to be younger and more Democratic than land-line owners. Most pollsters are conducting a set number of interviews with cellphone-only households.
But they can only guess at what percentage of the electorate they’ll constitute. Oversample them and you’ll get overly Democratic results.
Which, many conservatives have been arguing, pollsters have been getting in polls this month. They point out that Mitt Romney is running ahead among independents in many polls but trails overall.
This can only happen if Democrats have a big lead in party identification, as they did in 2008. In the exit poll then, 39 percent of voters identified themselves as Democrats and 32 percent as Republicans.
In contrast, exit polls showed an even break on party identification in 2004 and 2010. But many September and some earlier polls showed Democrats with an even bigger party identification lead than four years before.
That seems implausible. Party identification does change over time, as exit polls indicate. But it usually shifts gradually rather than suddenly, as current polls suggest.
There is evidence that since the Charlotte, N.C., convention, Democrats have become more motivated to vote and have narrowed the advantage in enthusiasm Republicans have had since 2010. In which case more Democrats may be passing through screening questions and getting polled.
I don’t believe that any of the media pollsters have been tilting their results in order to demoralize Republicans, though I do look with suspicion on the work of some partisan pollsters.
But I do have my doubts about whether samples with more Democratic Party identification than in 2008 are accurate representations of the electorate. Many states with party registration have shown big drops in registered Democrats since then.
Pollster Scott Rasmussen, who weights his robocall results by party identification, adjusted monthly, has shown a much closer race than most pollsters who leave party identification numbers unweighted. So has the Susquehanna poll in Pennsylvania.
It may be that we’re seeing the phenomenon we’ve seen for years in exit polls, which have consistently skewed Democratic (and toward Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries). Part of that is interviewer error: Exit poll pioneer Warren Mitofsky found the biggest discrepancies between exit polls and actual results were in precincts where the interviewers were female graduate students.
But he also found that Democrats were simply more willing to fill out the exit poll. Which raises the question: Are we seeing the same thing in this month’s polls?
Michael Barone,The Examiner’s senior political analyst, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.
Here’s an interesting Tweet from USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page:
New USA TODAY/Gallup Poll: GOP regains enthusiasm edge. 64% of Reps are more enthusiastic than usual v. 48% of Dems. http://usat.ly/QyKk3a
Are the polls reflecting that a whopping majority of Republicans (by a margin of 16 points) would crawl off their deathbeds through broken glass to vote Obama the hell out of office? I’m kind of guessing no.
In our latest POLITICO-George Washington University Battleground Poll with middle-class families, which comprise about 54 percent of the total American electorate and usually split in their vote behavior between Republicans and Democrats, Romney holds a 14-point advantage (55 percent to 41 percent). Middle-class families are more inclined to believe the country is on the wrong track (34 percent right direction, 62 percent wrong track), are more likely to hold an unfavorable view of Obama (48 percent favorable, 51 percent unfavorable), and hold a more favorable view of Romney (51 percent favorable, 44 percent unfavorable) and Paul Ryan (46 percent favorable, 35 percent unfavorable) than the overall electorate. These middle-class families also hold a majority disapproval rating on the job Obama is doing as president (45 percent approve, 54 percent disapprove), and turn even more negative toward Obama on specific areas; the economy 56 percent disapprove; spending 61 percent disapprove; taxes, 53 percent disapprove; Medicare 48 percent disapprove; and even foreign policy 50 percent disapprove.
Again, I’m guessing they don’t.
Liberals are putting an awful lot of stock in the 9% of Americans who are so lonely and who so do not have lives that a pollster calls and they grab the phone.
I guess I’m more like the 91% who won’t pick up the phone to talk to a pollster when it comes to thinking about the polls: I’m frankly just not that worried about them. And frankly the only thing I DO worry about is the extent to which the mainstream media has been going to try to exploit the polls to try to suppress Republican enthusiasm.
And that 16 point advantage the GOP has in voter enthusiasm tells me that maybe I shouldn’t be very worried about that, either.