Entering Polling Darkness

by Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin on October 30, 2012

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Even without a mega-storm blasting the Eastern states, we were headed into a period of polling uncertainty, but the storm intensifies the cloudiness of polling predictions from this point forward.  Like everyone else, we will take note of every new tidbit of information, especially reputable polls in presidential swing states like Florida and Colorado that were not in Sandy’s path of destruction, as well as the key Senate race battleground states, but even these will grow increasingly unreliable as election day draws closer.

The key point to understand that even a professional pollster will tell you is that public opinion polls are extremely valuable, but the least of their value lies in telling you who is ahead, and especially who is going to win the next contest.  The famous and most reported “horse race” question:  “If the election were held today, for whom would you vote?” is the least interesting question in any well-crafted survey.  Rather than reading the poll to get tomorrow’s news today, or more accurately next Wednesday’s news but possibly incorrectly, we recommend you read the polls to understand what voters do and do not want today and for the coming few years.  They will tell you that quite clearly, without any fog of war or hurricane.

The Polls will be wrong:

With Gallup suspending its rolling tracking poll of the presidential election for at least two nights, and other pollsters viewing key Eastern states from Virginia to New Hampshire as unreachable or at least unreliable for new data through Wednesday night, it is likely that the polls we have now are the best predictors we are likely to get, and the polls we have now are too close to tell us who is going to win this election.

Ever since the false prediction of an Obama victory in the New Hampshire primary of 2008, we have been particularly suspect of polls taken in the final days leading up to Election Day in hotly contested territories.  Even if the weather is clear, voters in Virginia and Ohio are reaching the point where they stop answering the telephone and will not even come to the door if it rings.  The problem for voters in the key battlegrounds is not just too many polls, but it is that the legitimate surveys are indistinguishable from the other persuasion calls and get-out-the-vote campaigns dialing through the same voter lists to reach registered independents and infrequent voters to get them to turn out. 

For this reason we place more stock in a poll taken on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in the week before an election than polls taken on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday right before the polls open (for those voters that still wait until Election Day to line up and vote in person the old fashioned way).  But these one-week-out surveys are precisely the polls Sandy has disrupted.  Horrors — we may have to wait until the votes are counted to know who will win Campaign 2012.

 The Real Value of Opinion Surveys      

Just because we don’t trust the survey horse race results, this does not mean we do not like surveys.  Far from it (and for full disclosure, remember, public opinion surveys pay our mortgage).  The sad news about polling is that all the value of surveys is what most of the press and pundits throw away.  Surveys give voters a unique chance to express their views, hopes, fears and desires beyond the choices they are presented at the voting box, and in 2012 voters could not be speaking more clearly. 

Unlike the ephemeral choice between candidates that many see as relatively poor vessels for expressing their preferences, answers to questions about policy and the direction of the nation have been quite stable all year (which partly explains why news editors pay them less attention).  Voters want politicians to stop blaming and criticizing each other and they want them to work together to solve the nation’s greatest challenges – getting the economy moving and addressing our national debt. 

Voters oppose entrenched ideological positions of the right and left and my-way-or-the-highway ultimatums in favor of compromise and balanced solutions.  Specifically, they want to see a plan to get federal spending under control while making investments in long term economic prosperity and a more secure middle class.  They want a plan that strengthens the long term viability of Medicare and Social Security, and they want a nation at peace.

The political campaigns know this is true, which is why Barack Obama has been trying to govern as a moderate and why his opposition has tried to paint him as an extremist (or Socialist).  It is why Mitt Romney is now trying to explain that his tax rate cuts for the rich are not really cuts and blur his proposals to privatize Medicare and FEMA.  Both campaigns are reading the polls and reaching the same conclusions, which is why both sides are essentially running a campaign that says, “I have a balanced plan to bring the two parties together and the other guy is a reckless (right or left)–wing ideologue.” 

The real tragedy will come if, and when, after one side has won a narrow victory, the winners declare an endorsement of very same philosophies and positions they tried to minimize to get those votes in the final days of the election.  The public opinion surveys are the voters’ only voice in interpreting the election’s final outcome.  We can only hope the leaders they elect will pay as much attention to this expression after the election is over.









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