Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Polling critique

Interesting, and knowledgeable, commentary. Election results aren't in yet, so I'm not posting this with any special foreknowledge of the real voter demographics. :) Basically he's asserting that polls in recent years have become cargo cult science.

OK, that's pretty harsh, and I want to emphasize that many polls are indeed trying to be professional and accurate, as much as the business will let them be. And even in the media whore groups, there are individuals who are honest and honorable (and probably miserable) and trying to put out a solid product. The problem comes from two directions. First, polling has become a business more than a profession, meaning that the guys directing the polls have become too willing to sell a story, even if that story is not exactly true. This becomes apparent when polls report shifts which are not caused by valid events, most easily seen in the phenomenon of convention 'bounces'. It's one thing to expect a party's base to become energized when the nominee is finally known and he comes out formally in a way that shows confidence and capability, but in recent years the pollsters have also decided this somehow affects the opposing party's support levels, a patently absurd notion on its face. I mean, what did Obama do at his convention that is supposed to have won over some Republicans, and just why should we believe that a number of Democrats, even briefly, supported McCain because he chose Sarah Palin for his running mate? That's manipulation of the data, folks, and cannot be explained any other way. It's been going one a while, that roller-coasting of the numbers, since polls in the media need to keep attention, and to do that they need to be exciting, even if it means being dishonest. They get away with it because they have a lot of time to worry about closing in on accuracy in the late weeks. Of course, some years they blow that, too. It needs to be said, repeated and repeated again, that polls blow the call by more than their published margin of error about 40% of the time.

The other problem is the Obama Machine. There are a lot of unprecedented conditions in this election, and I do not think the polling groups ever really sat down and thought about what the new conditions would be. Well, actually they did, but they did not test their conclusions, and as a result bought into some pretty tall tales from the Obama people. This year, the polls assumed the following things would be very different about this year:

1. Barack Obama being the first black to receive a major party nomination for President, black voters would be greatly motivated to register and vote, and this would swing decisively towards Obama. This led some polls to over-sample black voters, in the expectation that their influence would be more significant this year.

It's true and false. Black voters have indeed become more motivated this year, but as a demographic group blacks have always been enthusiastic, and have always overwhelmingly supported the democrat's nominee in presidential elections. As a result, it is mathematically impossible for black voters to significantly change the outcome of the election by supporting Obama. In a tight race, the increased participation could make the difference in some states, but nationally the effect is minimal and polling models should not be changed because of it.

Commentary continues. I found it interesting.
"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)

"Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

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