Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

One last warning about polling


We’ll give Jim Geraghty of National Review the final word, for now.

So a lot of people who don’t read me that closely are going to look at what follows and interpret it as “Jim’s saying the polls are always wrong.” That’s not what I’m saying, but I’m prefacing all of this with that prediction, because we’ve all seen that when people don’t like what you have to say, they attempt to cut off discussion by calling you insane or silly. Sneering “truther” in response to a disagreement from the conventional wisdom is almost as worn out as “racist.”

At the heart of the entire point of polling in political races is that supposition that the people in the sample are a realistic representation of the folks who will vote in the election. Now that the response rate for polls has plummeted all the way down to 9 percent — that is, out of every 100 calls the pollster makes, only 9 are completed — getting a sample that looks like the likely electorate in Election Day is tougher and tougher.

So pollsters adjust, they make extra calls and make sure they have a sample that is properly balanced by gender, by race, by age, and often times, by geography of the nation or state that they’re polling. They do this based on this fairly simple conclusion — the makeup of the kind of people who will answer questions from a pollster for ten or twenty minutes may not accurately represent the makeup of who will vote in the election. So if one gender, racial group, age group, or region may be more likely to take the time to answer questions than another, why not one party?

Folks like me have been wondering for a while whether folks on the Right — with distrust and suspicion of the media fueled by decades’ worth of stories and examples and anecdotes of what they deem media bias — are more likely to hang up on the pollster, and/or urge him to do anatomically difficult things to himself, than folks on the Left. Think of this as an American version of the “Shy Tory” factor.

Geraghty walks us through the history of recent polling and the news isn’t so good for the pollsters. Then he brings us back up to date with a warning,

Also, you should be checking the samples, too see if the partisan breakdown makes sense to you. If the percentage of Democrats in the sample is higher than the percentage of Democrats in the 2008 exit polls, some skepticism is warranted.

That’s how you find CNN releasing a poll Sunday night that has it tied, 49 percent to 49 percent, with Mitt Romney winning independents by 22 points, 59 percent to 37 percent, but “among those likely voters, 41% described themselves as Democrats, 29% described themselves as Independents, and 30% described themselves as Republicans.”

If the electorate is D+11 Tuesday, Romney’s doomed. If Romney’s winning independents by 22, he’s winning in a landslide.

Come Wednesday, some pollsters are going to have some splainin’ to do, Lucy.

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