Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Why you should be paying absolutely no attention to the political polls

My God, he lost four-tenths of a point among left-handed ventriloquists in the Ozarks. Do something!--The misuse and misunderstanding of polls continues unabated, the result of a combination of intellectual laziness by reporters and the shrinking resources at most media outlets.

Let's get a few things straight:

Barack Obama should be wiping out John McCain in what everyone agrees is going to be a Democratic romp. Why he is not doing so is the grist for hours of conversation on the cable networks and thumb-suckers in the regular press. After all, the national polls and the tracking polls are showing him five points or less ahead of McCain in the polls. One even has them statistically tied.

Reality check:

First and foremost, the national polls are irrelevant garbage. Did everyone forget 2001? The guy who won the most votes did not become President. It's easy to blame the Supreme Court for interfering (unconstitutionally, I might add) but as every middle school civics student knows, the Presidential election is made by the Electoral College and goes state by state. That Obama is only three or five points ahead nationally means nothing. The question is, how is he doing state by state? According to the reliable state polls, he is doing just fine and is well ahead in electoral college votes, sufficient to in the election (284 to 157--see Pollster.com here. You need 274 to become president). Throw in the third party candidates and Obama does even better. [The Wall Street Journal has McCain ahead of Obama but still shy of the 275]. Forget the national polls folks. Garbage.

Second, a great deal of time is spent on the daily fluctuation in the polls. He's up one day. He's down one day. What's happening? Nothing. That's another misreading of how these things work. Tracking polls (which make daily surveys) always vary from day to day. It is largely a function of who you call. You call different people every day and so you are going to get different answers. Some of the fluctuation is just noise. You also get a halo effect: 24 hours after an event the polls reflect what people are thinking about the event, but it usually disappears in a few days. It also is demonstrably true that most people aren't paying much attention yet, so when the pollster calls they give an answer off the top of their heads, based on minimal information. They may very well change their minds when they plug in after Labor Day. The value in the polls is to watch them over a longer time, weeks or a month or two. Then, the trends tell you something. I would also point out this has not been a very good year for pollsters.

Third, it's a very close election. Not necessarily. Say Obama is five points ahead on election day. Five points, again depending on the state votes, could be an electoral college landslide. Indeed a number of experts looking at current polling data suggests that's what's going to happen. Again--and read slowly--national polling data is irrelevant, can be misleading, and tells you very little of value in an election campaign.

Do some reporting folks.

While I'm on the subject, a few asides.
  • Will somebody tell Hillary Clinton she lost? Please. She and Bill simply haven't gotten it clear in their heads Obama won and they should either support him without hesitation or go away for a while. She lost. He won. Yet they won't go away and the cable news people are now spending days discussing it. She lost. Really. When you are done telling them, tell the media. She was still dominating cable news shows months after she lost.
  • Clinton supporters were duped into thinking the race was close to the end. She lost in March but no one had to guts to say so. There was virtually no chance she could recover and take the nomination unless she provoked an uprising at the convention, which she may yet do.
  • Demanding that Obama supporters help her with her campaign debt or else, amounts to political extortion for which there should be an impolite two-word response. Much of that debt was accumulated after it was clear she lost.
  • If the old John McCain (well, he is old--I mean the John McCain of 2000) were still running, Obama would be in real trouble. Fortuantely, a fake McCain is running.
  • Any sympathy I would have for Elizabeth Edwards is diminished dramatically by the fact she knew John was screwing around and still went out on the campaign trail touting family values. She knew it was a fraud at the time and still acted as an enabler. I would be the last one to throw stones in matters of this nature but I am not running for President and if I were it would not be on my moral perfections.
  • Imagine what it would be like if Edwards won the nomination and now this came out.
  • Jack Shafer of Slate suggests that the media mostly ignore the conventions since they really aren't news and haven't been in decades. We know who won months before the convention and except for an occasional blip, nothing really happens. I agree. They are infomercials for the party and except for the acceptance speech (which in the case of Obama should be well worth watching) and a brief dip into the party platform, there is no real news. I'd send one or two reporters at the most if I ran a newspaper, and I would let C-Span cover the convention if I ran a television network, and cover it on the evening news if anything else happens
Just some thoughts.

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