9/12: The Role of Public Polls

September 12, 2013 by  
Filed under Featured, Lee Miringoff

This NYC primary season brought both an anticipated “poll-iferation” and an equally expected questioning of the reliability of public polls.  With the first round of 2013 citywide voting now over and primary day in our rear view mirror, let’s assess how the public polls fared.  (Helpful hint: we adhere to principles of transparency.  If you want to number crunch, check out the rest of the site.)

caricature of Lee MiringoffA clarification on the role of public polls is the first order of business.  The case is often made that public polls move voters and unduly influence the outcome of an election.  The argument typically takes the following form: everybody likes a winner and public polls become self-fulfilling.  If this view was correct, it would be understandable for candidates who trail in public polls to shoot the messenger for allegedly overstating a front-runner’s support.

But, this is not a position I subscribe to.  Christine Quinn, the early favorite, did not widen her lead.   No bandwagon effect here.  Eliot Spitzer would have taken his early measure of Stringer and won by a landslide.  In fact, front-runners would always be expected to run up the score as Election Day neared.  Au contraire.  The political graveyards are full of fallen front-runners.  There must be something more to the role of polls then the self-fulfilling prophecy.

The truth is, it’s the candidates and their campaigns that win or lose elections.  This doesn’t come as a revelation to anyone involved in the world of political consulting or political reporters well versed in survey methods.  Public polls, if done scientifically, monitor campaign developments and changes in candidate support.

Second, even if the above assertion were true, in this era of “poll-iferation,” voters would be able to find poll numbers for many different potential scenarios.  Think back to Obama-Romney last fall.  Public polls were often at odds over where the electorate stood. If you liked Romney, you could find evidence for his lead.  And, you didn’t have to search too far to find numbers to your liking if you were an Obama supporter.  No need to switch your allegiance because of poll findings.

Rather than being targeted erroneously, public polls serve a useful, and yes, even a vital function in today’s high tech politics.  They offer, if conducted well, an insightful narrative of a campaign.  They guide journalists and poll-watchers about the dynamics shaping the electorate.  What are the issues driving voters? How are they reacting to campaign developments? What is the composition of the electorate and the appeal of the candidates?  This primary, it was extremely interesting to see how Democratic voters were assessing term limits, stop and frisk, affordability,  the 12-year incumbency of Michael Bloomberg, and the television campaign ads… the so-called “Dante effect.”

Debate watchers, for example, may think candidate Anthony Weiner won a debate, but the poll can tell us if the voters were moved.  (They weren’t).  In fact, public polls informed the public and the media about the willingness of voters to give Anthony Weiner a second chance, but not a third. Yet, his initial rise in the polls, provided some insight into Quinn’s weakness as the early front-runner.  The public polls documented the rise in her negatives and, most recently, the de Blasio surge.

Public polls also let the public in on the secret of what the private campaign polls are showing and provide insight about how candidates shape their strategies to survive the rough and tumble world of Big Apple electoral politics.  Does an opponent step up the attacks on a frontrunner?  First, Quinn took the incoming from her rivals.  Then, de Blasio was the target.  Check out Thompson’s ads about de Blasio and stop and frisk.  Don’t you think their campaign polls were telling them something?  You betcha!

How did the public polls perform tracking the Democratic primary in NYC ’13? Phase one: Speaker Christine Quinn was the early front-runner, but never had a lock on the primary.  She was the target of attacks as she tried to delicately balance her legislative work with Mayor Bloomberg with her desire to provide some distance.  No fourth term was she.  But, Quinn was unable to navigate this tightrope successfully.

Phase two: Anthony Weiner entered the fray and emerged as a serious contender.  This suggested both weakness in Quinn as the early front-runner, and that New Yorkers were willing to give Weiner a second chance.  He, and later Spitzer, took all the oxygen out of the electoral room during the summer and stymied the rest of the Democratic field from making serious inroads.

But, voters experienced redemption overload when a second round of Weiner’s sexting scandal emerged.  As the public polls documented, his negatives soared.  He continued to make good copy for the media, and remained very visible in terms of his ads and debates.  But, end of story for Anthony Weiner.

Summer turned to fall and the TV air wars intensified.  Finally, the Democratic field had a chance to breathe.  The de Blasio campaign captured the attention of Democratic voters with a well-constructed ad featuring his son Dante, and cornering the issues of stop and frisk, term limit extension, and city affordability.  This carried him through the primary.  No band wagon effect.  It was a well-constructed campaign.

Primary polling is no picnic.  But, I’ll leave that for another time.  For the present, the public polls provided a useful narrative on this mayoralty contest.  Today starts a new day!



9/9: There’s Nothing Wrong with the Margin of Error that a Little Understanding Won’t Cure

September 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Featured, Lee Miringoff

Next time you hear a media report on a public poll, who’s ahead in an election or the approval rating of an elected official, you’re also likely to be told about the poll’s so-called margin of error.  Don’t jump to any hasty conclusions about some mistake that was made in conducting the poll.  There’s nothing really wrong with the margin of error.  Instead, it’s an acceptable range that underscores why all polls are estimates.

caricature of Lee MiringoffIf President Obama’s approval rating is reported as 46%, plus or minus 3%,  that means if everyone in the population,  not just 1,000 Americans, had been interviewed, the actual result would have fallen somewhere between 49% (46% plus 3%) and 43% (46% minus 3%).

The margin of error is a statistical calculation based upon the number of successfully completed interviews.  It’s part and parcel of all scientifically conducted public opinion research.  The more people you interview, the lower the margin of error; the fewer interviews, the range widens, and the poll results are less precise.  But, it’s not an error, and it’s not some sneaky fudge factor used in polls to allow for an acceptable amount of mistakes in measuring public opinion.

Now, there’s plenty that can, and often, does go wrong in measuring public opinion.  How was the sample selected, were attempts made to reach cell phone only households, were the questions appropriately worded and asked in a reasonable sequence, was the quality of the interviewing up to professional standards, were repeated attempts made to contact hard-to-reach respondents, and was the weighting of the data carried out in an expert way?  These are all vital issues that affect poll accuracy.  But, they have nothing to do with the margin of error.

What does this mean for the consumer of public polls?  Take the case of two public polls.  Poll A completes 1,000 interviews.  But, the sample was not drawn well, cell phones were not contacted, question wording was shoddy, the question order badly impacted survey results, the interviewers were poorly trained, multiple callbacks were not done in an attempt to contact hard-to-reach respondents, and the weighting of the data was sloppy.   The margin of error for Poll A is…  plus or minus 3%.

On Poll B.  In this case, the sample was selected to reflect the population, cell phone only households were included, the survey utilized excellently worded questions, administered in a well thought out order, with highly trained interviewers, who made multiple attempts to reach potential respondents, and the data was weighted with expertise.  The margin of error for Poll B is… not fair looking over anyone else’s shoulder… plus or minus 3%.

So, the next time you hear a reporter cite a poll’s margin of error, think of this as not a mistake, but simply as an unappreciated statistical concept in search of better understanding.


7/23: Same Old, Same Old?

July 23, 2013 by  
Filed under Featured, Lee Miringoff

The latest McClatchy-Marist national poll has nothing but bad news for President Obama and Congress.  Surprising? Not really.  It’s more of the same….only more so.  Six months into his second term, President Obama’s approval rating is at a two-year low at 41%.  His GOP counterparts in Congress are scraping bottom at their lowest point with a 22% approval rating.  Congressional Democrats are only slightly better at 33%.  That’s certainly nothing to write home about to their constituents either.

caricature of Lee MiringoffIt doesn’t get any prettier drilling down into the numbers.  For President Obama, his decline from a previous poll at the end of March is across-the-board.  It is most pronounced among moderate and independent voters, but he is also taking a major hit from young voters and the Latino community.   Also, by two to one, voters nationwide wide think we are headed in the wrong direction.

President Obama’s second term began with the promise of gun control, immigration reform, and climate change.  Instead, voters have been offered the Benghazi controversy, Snowden and privacy invasion, an unsettled Middle East, and a lingering discussion over health care.

As for Congress, the nation is fed up with gridlock.  Nearly two-thirds want compromise, not a dig your feet in the sand “stand on principle.”  Even Republican voters by 50% to 41% want the legislative process to move forward.

What’s a president to do?  He cannot change the political realities of a divided Congress and a divided nation, but he always fares better when he gets outside the Beltway battles and talks about the economy.  So, off he goes starting Wednesday to Knox College where he gave his maiden speech on this national concern in 2005.

The theme is likely to be a familiar one, focusing on the middle class and opportunity.  It’s a message he carried successsfully throughout the  2008 campaign and his re-election effort last year.  He’s banking that a return to this theme and a series of campaign mode events will restart his stalled second term.

7/11: Forgive and Fuhgeddaboudit?

July 11, 2013 by  
Filed under Featured, Lee Miringoff

In case you need to be reminded from time to time, New York news is national news.  But, New York City pols may be overdoing it this election cycle.  With Michael Bloomberg exiting City Hall after three terms, a crowded race for mayor was a given.   But, the return of Anthony Weiner from political exile following his sexting scandal created an enormous shock wave even by New York standards.

caricature of Lee MiringoffHaven’t had enough? This week disgraced former Governor Eliot Spitzer launched his own frantic campaign for city comptroller.   But, if New York Democrats are experiencing candidate redemption overload, they’re hiding it well.

In the latest NBC 4 New York/Wall Street Journal/Marist Polls, both Weiner and Spitzer have demonstrated significant voter appeal.  Democrats seem willing to grant these two a second chance to make a first impression.  Presumably, it won’t resemble the impressions that chased each from elected office and extinguished what were expected to be long and successful political careers.

There are similarities and differences in how Weiner and Spitzer arrived at this place.  But, for each, the foundation anchoring their  return to politics may be that some voters discount these scandals as the basis for deciding their vote.  Instead, they are of the opinion that most politicians have skeletons in their closet.   Does that make Weiner and Spitzer sex scandal proof?  Does this now mark the end of the political sex scandal in electoral politics?

Don’t be too hasty in jumping to these conclusions.  Weiner at 25% may make the runoff in a crowded primary field, but he’ll have to double his current level of support to secure his party’s nomination.  Spitzer at 42% needs to reach 50% in the primary against his sole opponent.  In other words, they both have a significant amount of convincing to do.

Voters who are not really focusing on these contests will sharpen their gaze in the weeks ahead.  And, for Weiner and Spitzer that will represent the true test of whether they can survive their scandals and avoid a political meltdown under the hot lights of Broadway.

6/26: Will the New York City Mayor’s Race Come Down to the Buzzer?

June 26, 2013 by  
Filed under Featured, Lee Miringoff

For those watching the Bruins/Blackhawks Stanley Cup final the other night or game six of the NBA championship, the lesson learned is to stay in your seat until the very end.  That may also be the case with the NYC Democratic Primary for Mayor.   Nonetheless, the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC New York/Marist Poll shows some interesting dynamics that deserve attention.

caricature of Lee MiringoffAnthony Weiner has weathered the first phase of his return to electoral politics, and is now in front with 25% of Democrats’ support.  His 34% positive rating from last February has now become 52%.  Would Democrats consider voting for Weiner?  In April, his numbers were upside down with 46% saying “yes” but 50% saying “no.”  Now, his numbers are right side up with 53% of Democrats telling us they’d consider voting for Weiner to only 41% who won’t.

And then, there’s the decline in support for Christine Quinn.  She remains popular with  most Democrats.  In fact, her favorable/unfavorable rating is roughly two-to-one positive.  But, it has dropped.  In February, 65% of Democrats rated her favorably to only 17% who had a negative view of her.  Now, her positive rating has fallen to 57%, and her negatives have climbed to 29%.  Not too shabby but she now occupies second place among Democrats.  She’s no longer the frontrunner.

Bill Thompson, who narrowly lost to Bloomberg last time, is in third place currently with 13% of the Democratic vote.  But, he’s a factor to be watched as the field hopes to advance to the runoff.  His positive score has jumped from 52% last month to 60% currently.  In a runoff against either Quinn or Weiner, Thompson is neck-and-neck.

Movement, yes.  But, the race remains wide open with 18% of Democrats saying they are undecided, and only 36% firmly committed to a candidate.  If, as expected, this ends up a low turnout primary, then the ability of a candidate to turn out his or her base will be crucial.  That mobilization is not likely to be evident until the closing weeks of the campaign when voters are paying more attention.  Until then, these political playoffs remain very much an active contest.


2/20: A “Fair” Assessment

February 20, 2013 by  
Filed under Featured, Lee Miringoff

It might be said that in polling you get what you ask for.  That’s the case in the word choice of questions that measure the approval rating of an elected official.  Different polling organizations use different approaches.  For more than three decades, The Marist Poll, has relied upon a four-point question asking respondents to pick from “excellent, good, fair, or poor.”  “Excellent” and “good” in this measure are combined as a positive score.

caricature of Lee Miringoff

In the interest of transparency, all of our poll results are released publicly sometimes creating a poll-watchers give-and-take.  This is the case in the minor dust-up in our latest NYC measure of Mayor Bloomberg.  Some have argued that our measure undercounts how well the mayor is doing because some voters who say “fair” have a positive view of his job performance.

Several points need to be made.  First, we recognize that many voters who believe that Mayor Bloomberg is doing a “fair” job would tell us, if asked, they “approve” of his job performance.  Therefore, on a two-point approve-disapprove question, his job performance would be scored somewhat higher than it is on our four-point measure. But, a two-point measure, which includes some “fair” responses as positive, represents exceedingly tepid support for the mayor and nothing you would want to build a campaign around if you are seeking to replace him next year.  It inflates his standing for 2013 beyond his campaign value.

Second, an approval rating with a four-point measure offers a look at the intensity of voters’ views… the “excellents” and the “poors.”  And, because of our long history of polling New York public officials, we can provide trend data on this question.  Third, the combined “excellent” and “good” responses can serve as a barometer of an office holder’s re-election prospects.

In the case of Mayor Bloomberg this election year, it’s a useful way to assess the potential impact of his endorsement or whether a candidate is helped or harmed by being too closely identified with him.  The results from this Marist Poll of Mayor Blomberg’s approval rating is 50%.  In fact, when New Yorkers are asked specifically whether his endorsement would make them more likely to vote for a candidate, 36% say “yes” and 44% say “no.”

The Mayor need not apologize for a decent approval rating as he approaches a dozen years in office.  But, these numbers suggest that candidates this year will not be running on the mantle of anything that resembles making their election Bloomberg’s fourth term.  Among the Democrats, City Council Speaker Quinn will need to deftly pick and choose from the city’s accomplishments.  For the other Democratic candidates, it requires them to both try to tie Quinn to the mayor while separating themselves from the pack of alternatives. The mayor’s influence is not much different for candidates vying for the Republican nomination.  It’s Rudy Giuliani’s endorsement that matters for the GOP nod.

1/21: Memories of Inaugurations Past

January 21, 2013 by  
Filed under Featured, Lee Miringoff

Along with most of the nation today, I’m thinking inauguration.  My first memories of a president taking the oath of office date to 1961.  My age.  Ask not!  My favorite inauguration was the first I had attended, Bill Clinton’s in 1993.

Dr. Lee M. Miringoff overlooking the 1993 Inaugural Parade

There are many great memories from those few days in Washington from the swearing in (excellent seats) to attending the NYS ball that evening (rubbed shoulders with Nelson Mandela).

The top recollection, after the passage of several decades, remains watching the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue from Senator Moynihan’s apartment.  Our own private viewing stand.

My contact with Senator Moynihan dates to phone calls I would regularly receive in the early ‘80s about his latest Marist Poll numbers from his, then, staff aide, Tim Russert.  The relationship with the Senator grew over the years to include seminars at Marist College where he would treat political science students to his special take of politics and policy.  On one occasion, he was even a good enough sport to try his hand at an interview as “Daniel Patrick” with a voter who unfortunately couldn’t rate Senator Moynihan because he had never heard of him.  (Won’t ever try that again.)  And, there were the lunches in the Senate dining room always full of insight and dripping with Capitol lore.

But, his invitation to attend his inauguration party was the best.  And, the memories stay fresh as does my recollection of Senator Moynihan as a great host and gentleman.


11/28: Mitofsky Still Teaching

It’s been 6 years since our mentor, colleague, and friend’s death.   Warren Mitofsky was a clear thinker and major innovator of the public polling community.  Beyond his methodological rigor, he communicated long-lasting, yet, simple messages to the profession.  His thoughts remain vital through the 2012 election cycle.

caricature of Lee MiringoffDespite this year’s successful scientifically based public polls, the road was rocky, beset by a drum-beat of critics.  Yet, Warren’s frequently uttered message, now ably echoed by Joe Lenski, remains a guide.  “Believe your numbers!”

If your methods are scientifically sound, and

…you uncover unique results which pin the tag “outlier” on your findings, believe your numbers.

…you have a wider than expected spread in party identification, that brings a cascade of unwarranted criticism about weighting to party, believe your numbers.

…you are labelled a “newcomer” to Florida polling when you have Obama +2 and other long-standing polls have Romney +6, it isn’t a “house effect”.  Believe your numbers.

…you detect a changing demography… an increase in minorities… in your likely voter models, it may simply reflect changing demography.  Believe  your numbers.

…more voters are telling your interviewers that they have already voted than are being reported by state tallying sources,  it may reflect a time delay in mailing and recording early votes.  Believe your numbers.

And, if you are being hammered for belonging to a conspiracy of pollsters who are cooking numbers and skewing  results, stay focused.

Yes, it was “shoot the messenger” time and public pollsters were definitely in season.

Warren also advised us to always, always, always, poll right up to Election Day, even if you opt, to avoid confusion with Election Day exit polls, not to release the poll.  Recognizing that campaigns don’t stop when you finish your “final” survey, sometimes a week out, there just might be something to be learned for future elections about the  electorate and your likely voter models with this “exercise.”

We forgot his sage advice on the eve of the 2008 New Hampshire presidential primary when Hilary Clinton “upset” Barack Obama.  It would have saved us re-calling our respondents all week to ascertain the late movement among women to Clinton.

This year, the initial impact of Hurricane Sandy was picked up in our pre-weekend NBC/WSJ/Marist Polls of FLOHVA — Florida, Ohio, and Virginia.  But,  was there any late movement on the eve of the election?  We decided to invest, as per Warren’s dictum,  in one last poll, bringing the grand 13 month total to 53 surveys.  Sunday and Monday, we conducted a national survey and found Obama +3 among registered voters and +2 among the likely electorate.

There were many juicy poll nuggets in this survey including information about independent voters, approval ratings, the electorate’s view of the direction of the nation and the economy, minority participation, and where undecided voters were likely to end up.  This all provided a context for Tuesday’s official tally and will guide our polls, especially our likely voter models, in future election cycles.

So, Election 2012 is now comfortably in our rear view mirror.  Thanks, Warren, for being the lead driver once again.

11/5: On Election Eve…

When it comes to public opinion polls, this election cycle has had more shoot the messenger reactions than ever before.  There’s little doubt that pollsters are  in season for October and November.

caricature of Lee MiringoffMaybe this results from the growing twitter-sphere. I can’t recall the number of times I’ve had to explain that we don’t weight by party, can’t weight by party, and shouldn’t weight by party.  Party identification is a variable that moves from election to election and from poll to poll.  If you had used the ’04 exit polls as a guide for ’08, McCain would have been elected.

Ironically, I’ve never been asked why we might be undercounting young people or overcounting conservatives.  I guess the criticisms of poll data are motivated by the political cliche: “Where you stand depends upon where you sit.”

Pollsters can adjust data when there are population parameters but not for attitudes.  By way of example, pollsters can weight by age because it is a known number, but not by whether you consider yourself to be young, middle-aged, or old, an attitude.

Then, there’s the issue of pollsters  “cooking the numbers” to create some pre-desired result.  This criticism is often tied to the “weighting by party” argument.”  If you have any worries about pollsters forming a conspiracy, you should attend a professional gathering of number crunchers and watch them try to figure out where to go to lunch.  There isn’t a scientifically based public pollster I’ve ever come across in more than three decades of polling who isn’t motivated exclusively by the desire to be accurate and informative.

Then, there’s the matter of track record.  A couple of facts about The Marist Poll.  In the presidential election of 2008, we polled five of the current battleground states.  We called every one right.  The average difference between our final estimates and the Election Day results was 2%.  And, we underestimated Obama in each case.  We are sufficiently humble enough to understand that you are only as good as your last election cycle.  And, the battleground states this time are very close.

We are firmly committed to transparency, and make all of our numbers available to the public.  Unfortunately, it is our belief in sharing all of our internal numbers that frequently creates the misuse of our polls.  But, we will continue to provide the numbers nonetheless because so many people find them valuable and informative.

Finally, I’ve never been convinced that voters are waiting for the next poll to decide who to support.  It’s really the other way around.  Public polls measure  what voters think based upon what the candidates and their campaigns are doing.

Now, I’ve been asked my take on who will win the battleground states.  The ‘ol perfessor Casey Stengel used to say, “It’s very difficult making predictions, especially about the future.”  Nonetheless, affix your bayonets… Here goes.

Obama has a slight advantage in Ohio and Iowa.  Nevada and Wisconsin are leaning his way.  The remaining swing states: Florida,  Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire, and North Carolina are simply too close to call.

If (and, it’s still a big “IF”) you give Obama Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, and Wisconsin, and Romney the remaining five states, then Obama ends up with 277 electoral votes to Romney’s 261.  The assumption here is that Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota all remain blue states (another ”IF,” even if not as big).  We have not polled these states.

Also, recognize these states are all within single digits and most are within the margin of error.  Late movement among undecided voters and get out the vote efforts can still have a big impact on all the contested states.  Why?  Because it’s very close!

Have a good Election Day.  My thanks and gratitude to the more than 100,000 voters who have taken their time to share their views with us this election year.





8/29: Getting a Bounce?

The GOP convention is (finally) off and running followed next week by the Democratic gathering.  With Obama and Romney closely matched at the start of these two quadrennial events, as they have been since Romney emerged as the presumptive GOP nominee, what should we expect poll number-wise once the final gavel goes down in Charlotte?

caricature of Lee MiringoffPost-convention bounces are often dissected for any hint that the character of the contest has changed.  Yet, typically 5% has been about all a candidate can count on, and that advantage often quickly dissipates.

Don’t be surprised this go-around if the Romney and Obama bounces are even smaller.  Simply put, there’s far fewer persuadable voters to reach.  The “undecided” and “”those who might vote differently” groups now are about half the size of recent election cycles.

Part of the explanation has to do with the relative lateness of these conventions.  The summer is practically over.  Part of the explanation resides in the polarization that divides the electorate.  Most voters have already picked sides.  Part of the explanation is the result of limited network coverage for these increasingly staged events.

Nonetheless, the two conventions are important for Romney and Obama.  Romney has to solve his likeability problem.  Obama has to address why any shortcomings of his first term are likely to vanish if he is re-elected.  And, both camps are keen on rallying their respective bases.  Enthusiasm doesn’t show up in tossup numbers or poll bounces, but it is likely to determine who takes the oath of office in January.

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