Then, just before election day, the polling companies realize that they will be judged by their accuracy. None of them want to risk another 1980 fiascothe worst day in polling companies collective history. Right into the election, they were calling it for Carter; in fact, it wouldnt even be close.
Of course, Reagan won in 1980. And thereafter, the polling companies had to work extra hard to convince other organizations to, ahem, hire them again. Basically, if youre the captain of RMS Titanic, you might find it a bit difficult getting work later on, right? So the weekend before the election, your numbers magically start reflecting reality so that you wind up looking right on the money on Election Day.
So what the hell happened this time? Something doesnt seem rightpoll after poll...after poll keeps showing the President tied with Mitt Romney and even a little aheadand in some of the swing state polls, you see the President far ahead. Yet the average person thinks That cant be right. Anecdotes, yes, are not data, but by God it sounds like people are turning out in waves to vote for Romney. Lines in GOP-friendly early voting locations are out the door, with cars lined up waiting for a chance to park. Early voting seems to be showing a massive turnout for Romney, unless a Democrat campaign spokesperson is asked; then, the numbers seem to float for Obama. All the pundits who have done this many times in their life, however, seem to anticipate a decisive Romney wineven a landslide. So how can Obama be so close or even ahead?
Here is how they are doing it.
If you look at history, which poll takers do, they consider what percentage of the population votes Democratic and what percentage votes Republican. For many years, Democrats typically make up 36-38% of the election; the remainder is composed of Republicans and independents. The Democrat percentage is so consistent that the election is won or lost by how many Republicans vote plus whatever the independents do.
For example, in 2002, 38% of voters went for Democrats, 40% went for Republicans, and 22% were independentsand the GOP did smashingly well even though many independents broke for Democrats.
2004, 37% of voters went for Democrats, 37% of voters went for Republicans, and 26% claimed to be independent. But enough independents leaned Republican for GOP candidates to win a few elections that year.
In other words, year after year, the election is decided by how many independents break for or against Republican candidates. Republicans numbers also fluctuate greatly, but Democrats tend to hover around 36-38% pretty consistently.
In 2008, voter turnout was pretty unusual: 39% of voters went Democratic, and 32% went Republican. The remainder (29%) claimed to be independent, but many were borderline Republicans who simply voted for Democrats that year. In fact, Democrats hadnt enjoyed turnout that high since 2000and Republicans had not seen participation that low in decades.
Got that? Okay. Let us say you are a pollster. You conduct a poll in which you call a few thousand numbers around the US, and hope that you get about a thousand people to participate all the way through.
You ask them if they are registered voters because you dont need participants who cannot or will not vote. Sometimes, you ask if they are likely voters. This last part is very essential, the Czar believes, because only a small percentage of registered voters actually bother to act like mature adults and vote.
But many organizations dont care. They only want to know if you were to vote, for whom would you vote if the election were held today? Then they ask if you are a Democrat, Republican, or Independent.
You then wind up with a mish-mash of information. You run some common statistical methods on it, including the margin of error (which you can look up if you dont already know what this is), and you might wind up with the following simplified data for 1,000 participants:
Dems 620As you know, it tends to be a bit more complicated than this, because the polls factor in your gender, age, ethnicity, income level, and so on in order to figure out how to better categorize this information. But stick with us.
Looks good. But this tells you nothing, as you might have magically called the only 620 Democrats in the US somehow. So the pollster normalizes the numbers to make them more reflective of the total population. For this, you can use oversamplingyou might focus more on one group than another. Or, you can just look at historical results.
If we know that Democrats routinely make up 37% of voters, and then we can assume that 620 voters is probably too high. 620 out of 1000 is of course 62%, not 37%. So if we got 620 voters to indicate they are Democrats, than the actual number of Republican voters out of every 1,000 is probably closer to 493...all we do is multiply 304 actual Republican participants by 1.62 to normalize the number. And we see that the proportions are maintained pretty well. We can then figure out the probable number of independents from there. The results wind up:
Dems (620) 37%Of course, this seems very scientific but it is of course absolute horseshit. It assumes that the fact Democrats average 36-38% of the vote makes a safe baseline for you to beef up the other numbers. You still have no idea whether or not your sample was good. For example, in 1980, the pollsters must have called nearly every Democrat household in the US and very few Republican ones.
GOP (493) 29%
Indep (553) 33%
Nevertheless, if you look at the voter identification numbers dating back decades, it lines up really, really well with the end result. So pollsters laugh and point out that the methods justify the results.
And theres that little asterisk you hardly ever see that tells you, frankly, how many more Democrats participated in the polls than did Republicans:
* D+3This year is quite interesting: despite all the evidence that Mitt Romney is dominating, those darn polls keep showing President Obama tied or ahead.
Gallup and Rasmussen have started using a different assumption: what if voters turn out in the numbers they did in 2010? In other words, what would happen if the voters were evened out at 35%?
Bangthe numbers show that Romney is ahead or tied. And a few points translates to a landslide in voting measurements. Oh sure, squawk Democrats, These polls are rigged because youre choosing an outlier year. You see, in 2010, Democratic participation in the mid-term elections was at an all time low.
But, these pollsters argue back, 2010 has much more recent data; and Republican participation in 2008 was at an all time low. If its wrong to use 2010 to represent likely Democratic participation, then its equally wrong to use 2008 to show likely Republican participation. Touché.
Many folks are not interested in these byzantine and occult weighting systems that are based, ultimately, on desired results. Ever give a kid the answer to a math problem, and then ask him or her to solve the problem knowing the answer? You get handed the right answer, but sometimes some hysterical math to get there. In political science, this is called sophistry. And it is how much of the polling numbers are computed.
So instead of wondering who is a tenth of a point ahead with a margin of error around 5 points, look at the third group: the independents. If you assume that Democrats will get their historical average of 36-38%, and that the Republican numbers will float between 35-40%, the real tie-breakers are the independents. After all, they are the difference between 36% and 51% of the vote! If you win them, you definitely beat the other guys.
And this is a little easier to compute: you simply reach out to a large sample of independents or undeclared likely voters, and see how they are swinging. The larger the survey, the smaller the margin of error. There is no bizarro weighting, oversampling, or reverse engineering here: you just call a lot of them and ask whom they like.
Indeed, this is where the pundits on both sides of the aisle are concluding that Mitt Romney has a landslide-level lead with the independents. They love Romney. They dislike Obama intensely. The Obamacare guy is a mean, surly, petty grouch who cannot answer a question. The independents get it.
Another tidbit of history: independents also vote with a predictable historythey pick the challenger. Why? Because independent voters do not actually exist except in theory and political polls. The independent voter might change his or her mind, but this voter will almost certainly vote for Mitt Romney or Barack Obama.
If the independents are certain to vote for Mitt Romney, they say soand show up on the GOP side of the poll. If they are certain to vote for Barack Obama, they say soand are put into the Dem column. If they arenre sure that Obama is doing a good enough job, or if they lose confidence in him...well, they are merely waiting for Mitt Romney to convince them he wont be worse. And this gives the challenger the advantage. In election after election, independents jump to the challenger simply because the incumbent has not won them over.
And when you factor in the independents, you start to see the rationale behind the George Wills, the Michael Barones, the Larry Kudlows, the Karl Roves, the Dick Morrises, and more predicting a powerful Mitt Romney victory.
As the Mandarin says, only one poll matters: your vote.
So all these pollsters and their Obama ahead/tied results? Come Wednesday, whether Obama loses or not, there will come a reckoning about your methods.