Election 2008 – You Are Right To Mistrust The Polls

| October 19, 2008


One of the most annoying and anti-climatic parts of this rather sad and miserable election cycle has been the faux-drama of the polls. In absence of any real reporting on the details of either candidate’s plans, background or personality, the media focuses more and more on the virtual horse race conducted via the polls.

Websites like Real Clear Politics make it very easy to scratch that itch, by creating a master aggregation point for all manner of polls. They even provide fantastic break downs state by state of both the current numbers and the trends.

One would think by looking at a site like this that America is composed of a bunch of flighty know-nothings that have very poor grasp of the facts and tend to only believe what the campaign/media machines feed them. If you take a look at the graph below (from their web site) it would seem that some huge shift in voter opinion have been going on.


Seriously, do you think that a country as large and center-right as the US of A is going to swing from Obama-mania to thinking the crusty old John McCain is the right choice in a matter of days, just to turn around and re-embrace “The One” only to think that maybe Sara Palin is the person who can save us from the invading moose-born Al Queda?

What most in politics and the media know is that opinions change very little when it comes to electoral preferences. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, the choice of who they were going to vote for was decided long ago. What can explain such wild swings in the polls?

The primary reason is that the pollsters are not seeing radical shifts in opinion, what they are doing is trying to work out what the correct ratio of people in their sample size to use. This is the problem with statistics, your results are determined by what you input. Say last week my poll had 400 Democrats, 500 Republicans and 200 Independents. You would likely have McCain on top. Then I run the poll this week and I have 500 Democrats, 400 Republicans and 200 Independents. Viola! You now have Obama on top, without a single person changing their mind!

If you look at the statistical make up of the polls, from Rassumsen to Zogby top Gallup, they are all over the place, they are nowhere close to having a stable idea of who is really in front. Obama’s surge in the last 2 weeks? A dramatic change in how many Democrats were in the sample. The inch by inch comeback of McCain since the debate? An increase in the number of Republicans in the samples.

I am not suggesting they are doing this to “throw the election” or some nefarious intent, the pollsters simply don’t have a handle on what the turnout will be on election day. There are a lot of questions, will Obama really energize a lot of new voters? Will the Acorn fraud machine be able to manufacture a vast new wave of Democratic votes? Will the highly frustrated Republican and Conservative base hold their noses and vote for McCain even though they only want to vote for Palin? These are very tough questions that the pollster teams have to try and factor in some how.

Until then, remember that the polls are (especially this year) very bad guesses not on popular opinion, but who is going to be motivated enough to show up.

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Category: 2008 Election, Main, Media

About the Author ()

Bruce Henderson is a former Marine who focuses custom data mining and visualization technologies on the economy and other disasters.

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