Polls This Year Have Been Anything but Clear

Posted November 5, 2012 at 6:10pm

Rather than providing a clear snapshot of the state of a campaign, the unprecedented barrage of presidential and Congressional race polling this year has generated conflict and uncertainty among the political class. 

For example, averages of polls in swing states suggest President Barack Obama is poised for an Electoral College victory over Mitt Romney. But the GOP challenger’s campaign and its supporters argue that their data indicate the opposite. Below the topline horse-race numbers that look good for Obama, Republicans say some surveys have shown their voters are more enthusiastic than Democratic voters. And Romney is generally leading among independents.

At the Congressional level, the publicizing of internal campaign polls by House and Senate candidates has become more frequent than in past elections cycles, leading to more questions than answers for reporters and analysts who hunger for data to gauge the progress of a particular race. In several instances this year, campaigns simultaneously released internal polls conducted at roughly the same time that revealed starkly different snapshots of a contest, ostensibly to drive a political narrative.

Sean Trende, senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics.com, blamed the Internet and polling aggregators —
including his own firm’s “RealClearPolitics average,” Nate Silver’s New York Times-hosted FiveThirtyEight blog and others — for increasing the number of internal Congressional surveys that are made public. Trende said in an interview Monday that he suspects some campaigns release favorable internal polls to boost the RCP average, which in turn may elevate their media profile and help them raise more money. 

“I think part of it is because sites like RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight have contributed to the glut of partisan polls, because I do think they try and influence the averages and the race calls,” Trende said.

The controversy generated by polling is not limited to conservatives and Romney supporters. But they clearly have been some of the most vocal skeptics of the public polls, most of which are sponsored by media outlets, academic institutions or both in partnership. 

As polls of the general election matchup between Obama and Romney proliferated during the course of this year, amateur and professional political watchers alike — on the right and the left — dug into each survey’s details and eagerly questioned the partisan sample splits and other demographic turnout assumptions that determine the results. And they took to social media to highlight and criticize what they believed were a poll’s flaws.  

Some, such as Republican pollster David Winston, have used their Twitter feeds to compare current polls with past election results. Democratic pollster Margie Omero, who this cycle partnered with a GOP pollster to survey undecided female voters dubbed “Walmart moms,” said social media has led somewhat to the polling controversy, as it provides almost anyone with an outlet to publish their analysis of the data.

“Twitter-driven perhaps is an oversimplification,” Omero said of the controversy. “But I do feel there is so much coverage of polling now, it’s easy for people to look at the data and come up with their own analysis. Generally, that’s a good thing; it creates more transparency and discussion.”

The media’s near obsession with polling has clearly influenced the trajectory of some contests. If polls look good for a candidate, it can electrify fundraising and grass-roots support and cast an aura of victory that has been proved to have a subtle effect on voters. Poor survey results can have the exact opposite effect on a campaign. Very aware of this, campaigns have sometimes quite obviously used favorable polls as political weapons.

For example, the Indiana Senate race appeared to be a lock for GOP nominee Richard Mourdock until Democrats began to release their own internal polls showing a competitive challenge from Rep. Joe Donnelly. Public polls have since shown Donnelly’s viability. Now, Roll Call rates that race as a Tossup.

Beyond providing water cooler talk, polling at its core is about data. Political strategists want accurate surveys because it gives them valuable demographic data that tell them which voting blocs need to be targeted for early and absentee voting as well as how to tailor a candidate’s message so that it has the greatest effect. 

For Congressional campaign committees that oversee dozens of races, accurate polling is critical to determining how best to deploy resources that are often limited. Guy Harrison, who is finishing up his second term as executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said conducting an accurate poll has become more difficult in recent years.

“I think for the past three cycles, polling has been a concern across the board for political operatives,” he said. 

Topping Harrison’s list of the challenges is the difficulty in connecting with legitimate respondents who can provide an accurate snapshot of a race or a district’s demographic makeup, the continued increase in cellphone usage by voters and redistricting, which made polling tougher to trust this cycle because in many cases there was no historical data to compare it to. 

At the heart of the 2012 polling controversy — and the challenge for political strategists — has been which turnout model to settle on. Much of the public polling appears to have assumed that the Democrats will turn out in numbers similar to 2008, when Obama won a big Electoral College victory and his party swamped Republican turnout by 8 points nationally — its best showing in a generation.

Harrison said the NRCC believes Democratic-vs.-Republican turnout will be a hybrid of 2008 and 2004, when President George W. Bush won re-election on the strength of a marked GOP enthusiasm advantage. 

“This cycle, there was a problem for both parties because the baseline from 2004 and 2008 was so drastically different,” he said.