Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Crisis in Presidential Polling

The new Associated Press-GfK poll has John McCain trailing Barack Obama by just one percentage point. The findings look questionable, and after the huge leads Obama's had in public opinion the last couple of days, it's no wonder many of my readers say they don't pay attention to the surveys.

As PoliGazette suggests, "most pollsters have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to this year’s elections."

D.J. Drummond provides some perspective:

In 1985, the Coca-Cola company dominated the beverage industry around the world, and it's flagship product was its first, the Coca-Cola soft drink, literally an icon of Americana. It would seem to be the most obvious of strategic decisions, to leave the base of the company alone. Instead, in a move never explained let alone justified by the company, Coca-Cola announced that they were eliminating Coca-Cola, and replacing their number 1 product with a new formula, called "New Coke". Everything about the promotion was an unmitigated disaster, and later that year Coca-Cola re-introduced what they claimed was the "original formula", named "Coke Classic". The company tried to push "New Coke" on a public that never wanted it, and eventually gave up the next year. The "New Coke" strategy and promotion have become textbook lessons on the worst possible way to listen to customers and meet their expectations. Pretty much everything was done the wrong way, especially the arrogant way that Coca-Cola assumed their customers would accept the elimination of their favorite drink. Near as I can figure it, the essential problem came down to the fact that the company's marketing people made all the key decisions internally, without once stepping out into the real world to test their assumptions. What seemed a great idea in development, failed miserably in Reality. Obviously, Coca-Cola never wanted to enrage its customers, to drive them to Pepsi, or to put a bullet in their stock value, but that all happened because they made an incalculably stupid strategic decision, and they lacked an effective Deming loop to test assumptions and correct the process.

This is actually not all that uncommon in business....

This brings us back to the polls. The thing most folks forget about polls which get published in the media, is that the polls' first need is not to accurately reflect the election progress and report on actual support levels; it's about business. A poll needs clients to survive, and the media - always - wants a good story more than they want facts. So polls sell that story, and what would actually be a gradual development of support, with modest changes brought about as the public learned about candidates' records and positions, is instead sold as an exciting roller-coaster race, careening madly all over the place. If a candidate appears to be popular and charismatic, he might be allowed a strong lead, or the poll might tighten things from time to time just to keep attention on the polls. That's where that whole "bounce" thing after the conventions comes from - do you really think republicans or independents got more excited about Obama because of his convention, or that democrats and independents were more likely to vote for McCain because of the GOP convention? When you think about it, it should be obvious that these bumps are artificial unless there is a clear cause to show a change in support. And when you take apart the polls and drill down to the raw data, what you find is a close race with a gradually declining but still large pool of undecided voters, which is consistent with the known facts and actions we see from both campaigns.
That's an absolutely amazing theory, and it's plausible to some extent.

As a political scientist, however, I generally stick with the "drilling down the the raw data" part, and for the most part I've seen the polls as pretty reliable this year.

If there are going to be big discrepancies on November 4th, they'll be mostly
from sampling errors.

As for racial voting and the Bradley effect (which may indeed play a role),
note what Sal Russo had to say earlier this week:

Tom Bradley enjoyed the same type of love affair from the media that Barack Obama does today. Both candidates have appeared larger than life and hardly fallible. Indeed, both have compelling stories and project as decent, well-intentioned public servants. That is part of their appeal. But when the lights of the campaign shined brightly on the candidates, their flaws became more apparent.

In short, Mr. Bradley was defeated because he was too liberal, not too black.
We have thirteen days left in this race. I'm convinced that Barack Obama is outside the mainstream of America, and if he wins, it may very well be that the same liberalism that sank Mayor Bradley in 1982 ends up helping the Democrats this year- and then God help us.