Some 20 years ago as I was finishing graduate school, I worked for a polling company. It was longer than I wanted to but it gave me some valuable insights on that business before I moved into the line of work that I wanted. I got to know the man who ran the company; he ran polls for national and international companies and occasionally dabbled into political polling. He was meticulous and it became very clear that this job was his life. Now I don’t know his politics but I would guess that he was left of center, at least on social issues. However, he was nearly fanatical about being impartial and getting the true response. Some twenty years later, all of this helps me to understand how political polling works, and believe me it is very difficult. In other words, if political polling isn’t done exactly right it becomes a terrible slanted mess.
Here’s how live polling works. Automated computer dialers call randomly generated phone numbers, which are often are disconnected, faxes and or not in service. In a four hour shift you would be lucky to get 8-10 complete surveys per poll taker in a hotly contested political race. Now mind you that was 20 years before cell phones, my understanding is that now because of cell phones and caller id many polling agencies are using brief computer automated voices to ask questions. Most polling agencies have given up on live survey results on such things as your favorite bar of soup, breakfast cereal, shoe company etc. Believe me there were nights that we would put in a four hour shift and call over 150 people and get one or two complete surveys concerning your favorite shampoo.
When it comes to political polling my old boss (who is a Ph.D and widely respected across the country) would fret about the way we ask each question, our tone and our attitude. He would drill into us that he needed unbiased surveys for his clients. He would remind us, and this is very important in today’s world, that conservative oriented people don’t like polling as much as liberals because liberals believe in proselytizing their views while conservatives feel their views are a reflection of their values, as well as their cultural and religious upbringing. This is why liberals tend to be oversampled in polling. By and large they don’t hang up on pollsters and surveys because they view it as their duty and mission to get the word out. Again, my boss was not a conservative and he could see this 20 years ago.
This is why I become incensed when I see polls skewed toward liberal candidates and causes that make no statistical sense. In my recent article entitled; The Data and Demographics On Why Romney Defeats Obama in Ohio, I noted all of the statistical insanity that puts Ohio at a plus 9 percentage Democratic advantage in a CBS/New York Times Ohio poll when President Obama was at plus 8 in a perfect storm type year of 2008, when the GOP was plus 1 in the 2010 Mid Term Election. As indicated in this article I wrote last week, two pollsters I corresponded with stated the CBS/New York Times poll was simply unprofessional. I noted to the chagrin of some that even Scott Rasmussen, the GOP friendly pollster, has President Obama at too much of a weighted advantage in most states. (I believe he does this to avoid being labeled as a Republican tool. He was the most accurate pollster in 2008, but I believe in 2012 even Scott Rasmussen weights his polls one or two points more for than Democrats than he should.)
If you are basing your poll on the last election, you are out of date, and too many pollsters do just that. Judging from President Obama’s demeanor in last night’s debate, he seems to know something in the polling that is not trending his way. Often the candidates internal polls spell this out before we read about it, which makes this story about President Obama’s campaign looking for ways to win without Ohio more than a little interesting. Perhaps someone should inform Nate Silver of the New York Times. Mr. Silver was quite the algorithm guru in 2008, but this year he is off the rails to say the least. He gives a 70.3% chance that the President wins the election, which was a stretch before the first debate and now, well it seems Mr. Silver’s bias is definitely showing.
Most pollsters completely overlook the shifting demographics in each state, as they do change somewhat significantly in some states from one presidential election to another. I noted this in my article and as I indicated did receive a response from a couple of pollsters who concurred with my analysis. Also, on a positive note at least some pollsters are asking about how often you practice your faith (go to church.) In this category, Romney is winning Catholics almost 2-1.
Again in closing please take these polls with a grain of salt, and carefully read the sampling method used, if a pollster doesn’t tell you or it is buried as in the CBS New York Times article, you have reason to worry. In my just released book, The Catholic Tide Continues to Turn, I note that the faithful have long been told their views are passe, part of another century (which the President has implied on more than one occasion.) However, the Left has been saying that since the French Revolution and we are still here. Keep all of this in mind when you see polling data that doesn’t match the reality you see. In the words of Ronald Reagan, “Don’t be afraid to see what you see!”