Monday, February 18, 2008

Can you trust poll numbers? Plus, rambling on Obama

[I sent this to Jenn several weeks ago. I think it may be worth Cc'ing the general public at this point.]
Interesting data here.

In some of the primaries and caucuses held on Tuesday, things weren't much better. The final polls seriously underestimated Mr. Obama's performance in Alabama and Georgia, and Mike Huckabee's vote in Georgia and Missouri. In California, two polls conducted over the same two-day period before the election yielded diametrically opposite results: one showed Mrs. Clinton leading by 10 percentage points, while the other reported Mr. Obama up by 13 points. In four other states — Illinois, Massachusetts and Connecticut for the Democrats and Alabama for the Republicans — polls showed large ranges of variation.

As the remaining states prepare to cast their decisive votes in this campaign, how are voters supposed to make sense of all the conflicting data?

Unfortunately, when the differences are as severe as they were in California, we can't. Despite 22 years of experience as a Democratic pollster, I can only speculate about what might be going wrong.

Why? Because so many pollsters fail to disclose basic facts about their methods. Very few, for instance, describe how they determine likely voters. Did they select voters based on their self-reported history of voting, their knowledge of voting procedures, their professed intent to vote or interest in the campaign? Did they use actual voting history gleaned from official lists of registered voters?

Fewer still report the percentage of eligible adults that their samples of likely voters are supposed to represent. This is a crucial statistic, given the relatively low percentage of eligible adults who participate in party primaries. (In California, for example, turnout surged in 2008 but still amounted to about 30 percent of the state's eligible adults.)

Incredibly, some organizations routinely report results without any indication of whether a live interviewer or a recorded voice asked the questions.

It's tempting to get excited about, for example, Obama's current lead over McCain in the poll numbers, but I'll think about this article and be cautious in assessments. My gut feel is that Obama will probably be our next President. Maybe I'm overestimating the power of the American racial guilt complex, but I think [Inserting foot in mouth now] a significant number of independent voters would like to be able to point to Obama as a sign that America is neither anti-Muslim nor still mired in 1960's-era racial prejudice, and that 3-5% may be enough to give the edge over McCain. In a funny sort of way, it's an appeasement policy, although the enemy here isn't the Nazis but their own psyches, masquerading as other's opinions. At least for the racial part--the Muslim aspect has some real geopolitical baggage attached that makes "appeasement" more than just a metaphor.

My biggest worry about Obama is that he's not, or doesn't appear to be, a political realist. Over the past few years I've seen too much ideolism in action (Paul Bremer) to be eager for any more. (This in spite of the fact that I'm inclined to idealism myself, which is why I would never vote for myself were I to run for President.) On the plus side, he's not closed-minded, so one might hope that realism would win out occasionally in his policies. My other concern would be the Supreme Court nominations. The Supreme Court has lately been rendering strict-constructionist verdicts (by narrow margins), like the software patent ruling on obviousness and the Kansas City school district verdict, and I would rather not see that margin evaporate.

Well. Civilization will probably survive, even if it doesn't take my advice.


"The presentation or 'gift' of the Holy Ghost simply confers upon a man the right to receive at any time, when he is worthy of it and desires it, the power and light of truth of the Holy Ghost, although he may often be left to his own spirit and judgment." --Joseph F. Smith (manual, p. 69)

Be pretty if you are,
Be witty if you can,
But be cheerful if it kills you.

1 comment:

Elie said...

Good for people to know.