General Question

BonusQuestion's avatar

What do you think of presidential opinion polls ?

Asked by BonusQuestion (1483points) September 7th, 2008

IMO, there is something strange going on with polls. In one hand most polls report that the race between Senator McCain and Senator Obama is in “dead-heat” or at least it is pretty close percentage-wise.

Gallup Daily Tracking Barack Obama 47% John McCain 45%

Rasmussen Reports Tracking Barack Obama 49% John McCain 46%

YouGov-Economist Barack Obama 42% John McCain 39%,_2008

On the other hand there is some polls that show Obama has a chance in some “weird” states like North Dakota. I mean, North Dakota might go Democrat????? How is it possible that Obama has a chance in North Dakota but the race is still close?!!! Even Clinton lost this state twice by a big margin.

North Dakota Obama 43% McCain 40%

And here is another poll:

Does it mean that this year we might see some serious changes in political map of the US? Does it mean polls make no sense at all since they contradict one another?!

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34 Answers

sndfreQ's avatar

Opinion polls regarding candidates are just that-opinion. Many are fraught with bias, and you should consider whether the source has any credibility and/or alignments with the interests of the candidates they list in the poll. Often, opinion-type polls serve only to take issues out context and to force people to make knee-jerk judgments about candidates.

This election is more complex than a “yes” or “no” or “I like” “I hate” response. It’s not a popularity contest…convincing others that it’s not-that’s the real battle.

AstroChuck's avatar

These poll represent the national popular vote. But what you need to win are state delegate votes. So by having the chance to win some of these marginal states that previously went to the GOP candidate, Obama gets the heads up.
Of course he is going to have to win by a bigger percentage than the republican machine’s percentage of grift.

JackAdams's avatar

Without wishing to sound like a smart-aleck, the ONLY “Opinion Poll” that ultimately counts, is the one the occurs on Election Day in November.

BonusQuestion's avatar

Believe me. I know about electoral college and I know that nothing matters except for the election itself. I am just wondering why the polls contradict one another so much!

JackAdams's avatar

It depends on WHO is funding them.

Bri_L's avatar

The problem with the polls is that by their very nature, that is to say who takes part in them, where they are, how they are taken, they can show anything.

allengreen's avatar

These corporate funded polls are designed to create the illusion of a close race, so that when we wake up on Nov 5th with President McCain the ignorant populace will accept the results, roll over, and go back to sleep for another 4 years.

dalepetrie's avatar

The other answerers have scratched the surface – funding/bias, electoral college, polling vs. voting, etc. I think I have the answer to your question if you will bear with me.

First off, a poll is a statistical measuring tool, nothing more, nothing less. The simplest rule of polling and surveys is that given a specific sample size, there will be a particular margin of error of plus or minus so many points for each answer. Which means that let’s say you ask 600 people a yes or no question, 53% say yes and 47% say no, and the margin of error of the poll is plus or minus 3%. Well, that means that both the 53 and the 47 could be wrong by plus or minus 3 points, so in reality, what that poll tells you is that out of everybody that poll is supposed to represent (not just those people sampled) it could be between 50/50 and 56/44.

So, the next concept of polling you have to look at it is as I alluded to up above, everybody that poll is supposed to represent, aka, what you are trying to come up with is a “representative sample”. In theory, you try to get a “random” sample, but the problem with political polling over the phone is, you can’t really just get a random sample of Americans, North Dakotans or whatever. Some have phones, some don’t, some will or won’t answer. And certain areas might be highly Republican where others might be highly Democrat, and if you oversample one area, in an attempt to be “random”, you actually introduce more error into the poll. So, what pollsters do with public opinion polling is they attempt to correct for certain factors to be as accurate as possible.

One thing they need to correct for is the fact that if you tried to get a random sample of all Americans, it wouldn’t necessarily be the same as a random sample of all the people who are going to vote. Remember that about 40% of Americans don’t bother to vote, so what you really need to do in order to get a “representative sample” is to try to determine who is a “likely” voter. One of the best ways to do this is to look at who has voted before, and to sample people who based on past activity are likely to vote this time. So, you look at voter registration lists. Which is all well and good, but then you also have to say, well what percentage of voters were registered Democrats, what percentage were Registered Republicans and what percentage were Registered or Unregistered Independent voters. And you try to say, if it was 40/40/20, then you try to make sure that if you interview 1,000 people, 40 are Dems, 40 are Republicans and 20 are independents. And of course, you also have to adjust for new registrations, which can be pretty hard. For example, if a pollster was using 2004 election data, well, in 2004 there may have been more registered Republicans than registered Democrats. Today, the opposite may be true given the state of the economy, the war and the fact that Obama’s campaign has been turning out new voters left and right. And then of course you have to say, well how many of these new registrants are actually going to turn out…there is one big complexity. OK, if they made it to the primary, you can probably count them in, but Obama gets someone to register as a Democrat today, you have to make some assumptions. Different pollsters will make different assumptions…this is one place bias can come in or just simply sloppy methodology or even assumptions which are well intentioned, but wrong.

Then we have a problem now days that pollsters are having to figure out how to incorporate the surge in cell phones into their polling. They didn’t used to call cell phones at all, but now they do, the problem being though that some people don’t even have land lines anymore. And of course they’ve always had to adjust their samples for people who screen or block calls or have unlisted numbers. And yet, phone polling is probably going to be the most representative way, because internet polling and polling by mail is just going to give you the people who bother to send the results in, and in person, depending on where you do it could be biased based on the demographics of the area and what not.

So polling is very complex, and it’s inherently inaccurate, so even these margins of error are simply a representative sample assuming their assumptions and adjustments in sample are correct at establishing a pool that can truly represent those who will vote in November. The concept that pollsters have to make adjustments based on assumptions has been termed PIE or pollster introduced error by a website I like to visit called, which is a blog and an attempt to make predictions from polling data. They actually adjust the polls themselves based on historical accuracy of each pollster (difference between their poll and the real result), so they know that pollsters like Gallup and Rasmussen have very little PIE, but something like Zogby Interactive, which polls people on the internet, have VERY high PIE. This site looks at all the polls that are done with one exception…internal polls.

What is an internal poll? Well, it’s a poll commissioned and used by the campaign, and therefore it can not be deemed to be reliable enough…yes, the campaigns know what they’re doing and they want to be accurate but it’s hard when you pay for something to not get some bias in your favor. So they ignore those polls and just look at the polls that are out there which are independently financed, they weight the reliability of these polls by the margins of error, the recentness of the poll, the reliability of the particular pollster, etc. And they then in turn use regression analysis to adjust for trends, both in state and national polling. In this way they can come up with a fairly accurate picture overall of “if the election were held today, this is what we could expect”. And even this comprehensive method, which has the benefit of the collective sampling of ALL pollsters, has its limitations.

One thing that this method also does is to filter out noise. When something big happens on the campaign (say McCain introduces an unknown, unqualified person as his running mate, who turns out to be a darling of the Republican base which he’s had a hard time connecting with), a lot of noise happens on those days…it introduces a level of volatility in what people say they might do in November and what their real long term impressions are going to be.

So, because of all the factors that could affect a poll’s accuracy, it’s not all that rare to see two polls on the same day that say completely different things. And yes, traditional GOP strongholds WILL fall these days. But take North Dakota for an example. It’s ONE poll. If you look at the 538 website, you’ll see that in tandem, all the polling in ND still shows it as a red state, but a weak red state. A few more polls say the same thing, and suddenly it starts to look like the trend says that ND will flip blue. I don’t suspect ND will be a swing state, but Virginia, Nevada, and Colorado for example are looking mighty good for Obama.

Bottom line, take and single poll with a grain of salt…doesn’t mean it’s “useless”, but it’s really not all that meaningful unless looked at in the context of all similar polling.

Bri_L's avatar

@ Dalepetrie – Once again I would like to thank you for taking the time to explain things so clearly. I really appreciate it!!!

BonusQuestion's avatar

Thanks for the great explanation. I didn’t know Zogby conducts its poll over the net. Today they have it for McCain by 4 points. (Rufus brought this to my attention by posting a question)

Also, I thought polls only use landlines. Do they call cell phones? Is it legally allowed even to do so? Also when you register for Do Not Call List, is there an exception for polls and things like that?

cak's avatar

@ BQ – yeah, I saw the question – but it seems he’s picking which one looks better for his choice.

I don’t really put too much thought into the polls, because of all of the above named factors and the rapid change they can show. One week one side is up, the next – well, they are the dark horse.

I’ve been through enough elections now, to see that the polls can be completely wrong.

Dale…I will get that grain of salt out!

BonusQuestion's avatar

Gallup shows McCain is ahead by 3 pts. Its the first time, in last couple months, I remember they had it for McCain–45.aspx

It’s probably the convention “bounce” and not much more. In coming weeks we can see what that really means. If it remains that way it probably shows a shift towards McCain.

dalepetrie's avatar

Zogby does regular polls, but they also do “Zogby Interactive™” polls and it is the later that is done via the internet (you sign up online to be part of their panel, identify yourself demographically, and they send you occasional invites to do polls). The guys over at 538 who deal in hardcore statistical analysis refer to those polls as “an exercise in dart throwing”.

As for them using cell phones, I think maybe when the whole do not call list thing came about, they started allowing pollsters. I remember the rule as being even if you’re on the list, charities/not for profits and businesses with which you’ve had a relationship at any point over the last 18 months (i.e., even if you go to the fair and sign up for $10,000 in free siding, the place can call you incessantly for the next 18 months), in other words, the do not call list is a joke anyway. Cell phones are definitely off limits to telemarketers, but not to pollsters, only problem is since they’re not listed as many places, they’re not as easy to gain access to. So, if you have a cell phone only and aren’t using it on forms that you fill out, then it’s unlikely you’ll get called.

As for McCain being up 3 pts in Gallup, you’re right, it’s to be expected from the convention bounce. Bounces are almost always temporary and are generally short lived. Basically it almost seems like once we see the first debate, any residual bounce they may still have will be gone, if not before. Again, I’ll mention 538, if you go there now, the most recent blog post talks about the bounce they’re seeing, and they say they’ll expect over the next few days that McCain’s #‘s will look better and better, but if you look at their trend analysis today it still shows Obama leading significantly in spite of this polling data.

And before I end this one, there is one other thing I meant to point out on the last answer I gave. A lot of the accuracy built into the sample really has to do with not only how the questions are phrased, but the order in which they are asked. One of the most important things that laypeople like us rarely see in regards to polling is called the crosstabs…it is where you can see detailed info about the poll itself as well as who was sampled and what the actual questions were. Glad this helps.

stratman37's avatar

47% of all statistics are made up! ; )

sndfreQ's avatar

@BonusQuestion: don’t forget to read the fine print at the bottom of that poll:

“Survey Methods

For the Gallup Poll Daily tracking survey, Gallup is interviewing no fewer than 1,000 U.S. adults nationwide each day during 2008.

The general-election results are based on combined data from Sep. 4–6, 2008. For results based on this sample of 2,765 registered voters, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±2 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.”

janbb's avatar

57% of me thinks polls are crap, while 43% of me wants to believe them when they show my candidate is ahead.

BonusQuestion's avatar

startman- Have you ever heard of “JBENZ”?!

BonusQuestion's avatar

janbb- You have a good point. I guess most people only believe polls when they support their candidate.

tabbycat's avatar

I’ve been looking at the polls a lot lately, and they only confirm what I’ve always suspected, that it will be a very close election, and no one should take anything for granted. As an Obama supporter, I hope it convinces my camp to keep fighting.

I’d like to think there will be some serious changes in the political map, but as a Baby Boomer, who has been through many campaigns, I know that change happens very slowly. Still, with the country about equally divided between “red” and “blue” voters, a small difference in the map can be very meaningful.

We’ll see.

allengreen's avatar

I heard today that Democrats are registering more voters than Repbus by a huge number, and the Gallup does not call young folks, so we need to fight like hell to offset the media….

dalepetrie's avatar

For any Obama supporters who are worried, read this…

BonusQuestion's avatar

allengreen – While you might be right I remember all these arguments back in 2004 but in the end Bush won as polls suggested.

Dale- Thank you for the link. Will read it.

allengreen's avatar

Bush won in 2004 despite what the polls said—Polls and Exit Polls had Kerry ahead. And several Ohio election workers and officials went to jail for fucking the recount. Bust out “the google” you are wrong wrong wrong and I’m not going to let that revisionist history pass today.

tabbycat's avatar


Very good article. Thank you for posting it.

dalepetrie's avatar

You’re welcome…I know it made ME feel a bit more at ease, even though I knew most of it, it was good to read it all again in context of the current situation.

Bri_L's avatar

yes thanks dale.

I was begining to feel like uh-oh.

janbb's avatar

This was a great article. I hope it’s right.

dalepetrie's avatar

Ground game is what makes me feel comfortable. I know that polling is based on profiles of likely voters which are obtained in part by historical voting patterns, which makes it hard to discern the real effects of having one party out there knocking on 30 times as many doors as the other party.

I actually anticipated just by virtue of the fact that the Republicans had their convention last that their bounce would put McCain in the lead for a while.

Remember that we haven’t had a single debate yet….people are reacting (as people do) to the last thing they saw in regards to the election…in this case that was McCain’s speech. And if you’re a low info voter, you won’t realize that what he said does not mesh with his positions. And right now they’re being very tight lipped about Palin’s positions, they’re putting her out there as a personality, not as a candidate. Just today I heard someone on NPR say they contacted the McCain/Palin campaign for clarification on where they stand on such and such an issue, and that they’ll let the listeners know as soon as they hear back. Palin hasn’t “met the press” yet. On one hand she wants to campaign as a personality, but then they cry foul when she is attacked on something that is not about the issues. They can have it both ways for a while, but when the debates hit, that’s where the rubber meets the road and their days of saying one thing and doing another will be at an end, they’ll have to stake out firm positions, Palin’s positions will alienate too many people and it will be all over but the cryin’.

janbb's avatar

Form your moth to G-d’s ear!

allengreen's avatar

Dale, don’t forget Kerry made Bush look amature in the debates of 2004—yet Jesus wispered in the ears of the conservatives in Ohio—“psst, vote Bush”.

dalepetrie's avatar

Problem was, Bush and co knew how to get nasty (as do McCain and co), but unlike Kerry, Obama has shown that he knows how to fight back. For the first time in my lifetime we have a Dem that isn’t going to just lay down and take it when they lie about him.

Bri_L's avatar

What is cool is he does it with calm and cool intellect at least so far.

tabbycat's avatar

Here’s another article attempting to explain why McCain is ahead in the polls, even while the Democrats are registering more voters than the Republicans:

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