In this primary season the only conclusion that makes sense is that very little has made sense. Rigorous, scientific public polls have provided a very useful road map. As fellow pollster Gary Langer has commented: although public polls, the good and the bad, are often mixed together like champagne, cola, and turpentine, where would we be without good measurements of public opinion? What started out as a Bush/Clinton inevitable matchup, has emerged as anything but. Public polls have provided insights (and, there are many) about the staying power of Donald Trump and the emergence of Bernie Sanders.
In Iowa, we are finally on the eve of when voters officially join the fray. This time four years ago, the final NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll showed Mitt Romney (+2) and Ron Paul in a statistical dead heat with Santorum surging into third place with 15%. The final Des Moines Register poll handicapped the contest the same with Romney (+2) to Ron Paul and Santorum surging into third place with 15%. These polls were excellent explainers of where the contest stood at that time and provided many additional insights into what the numbers showed under the hood.
A couple of weeks ago, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll and the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll again mirrored each other. Marist had Cruz (+4) over Trump, and the DMR had Cruz (+3) over Trump. Rubio was in third place in both polls by the slimmest of margins over Carson. On the Democratic side, Marist had Clinton (+3) over Sanders. It was Clinton (+2) over Sanders in the DMR poll.
The final NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll has Trump (+7) over Cruz, but with Rubio in third and closing. Clinton remains (+3) over Sanders. The final DMR poll has Trump (+5) over Cruz with Rubio in third.
Both polls offer an inside-the-numbers look into what might tip the scales on Monday night. But, the campaigns don’t stop once the polls do. The GOP (Trump-less) debate, the latest flap over Clinton’s emails, the final ads, and the good ol’ ground game translate into, dare I say, these polls providing a narrative not a precise prediction. They represent serious attempts to measure public opinion, inform poll-watchers, and serve as a resource for political journalists. Now, let the voters decide.
This topsy-turvy election year, perhaps more than others, will ultimately require all of us to re-think polls, politics, and the press. But, isn’t that what each election season demands? The development of the new normal about candidates and campaigns is for another day. In the meantime, safe travels to my friends in Iowa, happy caucus, and see you in New Hampshire (if you don’t get snowed in)!
The Top Ten Songs the Candidates will Dedicate to Iowans on Caucus Day are:
9. I’ll be There For You by Bon Jovi
8. Don’t You (Forget About Me) by Simple Minds
7. All by Myself by Eric Carmen
6. Like I’m Gonna Lose You by Meghan Trainor featuring John Legend
5. All I Want Is You by U2
4. Help! (I Need Somebody) by The Beatles
3. People (Who Need People) by Barbra Streisand
2. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart by Elton John and Kiki Dee
1. Ain’t Too Proud to Beg by the Temptations
The top ten things candidates say when they know they are down in the polls are:
9) Polls go up, polls go down.
8) I’m running neck and neck among _________ (fill in demographic group).
7) That’s not what our polls show.
6) We always expected it to be close.
5) We’ve got a great ground game.
4) Once voters get to know me, the numbers will turn around.
3) We’re competing for every vote, and we expect it to be very close.
2) I don’t put much stock in the polls. It’s the voters who count.
1) I love that poll. It’s a fair poll, and I’m going to win, and it will be huge! (This is an alternate universe comment and does not need to fit the category)
Poll Watcher Season is upon us big time. And, with it comes both the good and the bad. Each election cycle resurrects some oldies about the failings of public polls and typically ushers in a few new critiques. Expect 2016 to follow the same pattern.
In an attempt to shed a little light on the discussion… here goes. Pre-election polls are not predictive even though many continue to treat them that way. Common sense tells us that a poll conducted substantially before voting cannot be predictive. Instead, pollsters like to describe their work as a “snapshot,” although as Gary Langer correctly points out, “portrait” is more accurate. Without pre-election polls, we would be clueless about the surprising and lasting electoral appeal of Donald Trump. No summer romance was he. Or, how would we know that JEB! hasn’t connected with GOPers? It would be impossible to assess how Hillary Clinton’s main opponent, Bernie Sanders, is doing. Will she turn out to be inevitable this time, or will she be derailed again?
Public polls help us understand the emergence and decline of different candidates and also let the public in on the secret that campaign pollsters and strategists see in their private poll data. If you want to understand why Bush, Rubio, Christie, and Kasich are battling each other for the “third Lane” of so-called establishment voters (and, have chosen, at least for now, to give frontrunners Trump and Cruz a free ride), check out the public polls.
These insights are also accompanied by a wave of criticism about public polls, and some of this fallout is well deserved. There are a growing number of faulty polls. The public is well-advised to check out the sponsorship of polls, when they are conducted, whether they consider likely voters, the track record of the organization, and the method of data collection utilized. Answers to these and many more questions separate good quality public opinion research from the hit and run poll-liferation that now characterizes our number crunching campaign coverage. Poll aggregators that provide an average of the averages are useful but only if the organization tries to sort out the good polls, from the bad, and, especially, the ugly.
A word of caution. Don’t be thrown by sample size and the margin of error. For example, the margin of error is a statistical concept that largely relates to the numbers of people interviewed. It is often misunderstood in that it is not really an error at all but the acceptable range that poll findings would fall within had you interviewed the entire population. Who you interview, how you interview them, and how you model your data are more significant indicators of quality than the number of people in a poll. Put it this way, if you have a badly constructed sample, the more people you interview the more inaccurate your results will be. The errors in your data will multiply while the margin of error will shrink making the poll appear more precise and rigorous.
Unfortunately, there are no foolproof guarantees that the best polls will be right all the time or that a bad poll will always miss the target. In class, I like to tell students that even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day. Public polls are aiming at a moving target. The campaigns don’t take a break once the polls have spoken. Get out the vote efforts, particularly in primaries and caucus states, are critical. There is no copyright on defining a “likely voter.”
So, we are left with lots of poll numbers which hopefully present an accurate narrative of campaign dynamics. But, accuracy is hard to achieve. There have always been challenges, real and exaggerated, to the accurate measurement of public opinion. And, that’s been the case every four years.
This election cycle will present its unique array of tests. In the current atmosphere of voter frustration and declining response rates, debate will center on modes of data collection. Traditional probability- based polls which use live interviewers and reach voters on landline and mobile devices are being joined with a variety of on-line and Internet measurements, some probabilitybased and others not. It will be interesting to watch how the public opinion field assesses these developments.
Regardless of the mode of data collection, public pollsters worth their weight are striving to be accurate, and transparency helps the serious student of public opinion to better understand poll results. But, transparency also feeds the criticism that pollsters are “cooking” their numbers to benefit one candidate or political party. Social media certainly contributes to this hammering.
So, we are left with lots of poll numbers which are hopefully developed in an honest attempt to be accurate. In the best of worlds, these public polls present a narrative of the campaign that reflects what is going on. If you want precision in predictions, don’t ask public polls to go beyond what they can reasonably do. If you’re looking for guarantees, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Herding is for horses. Not for pollsters doing horserace polls. Neither should the media herd the field in a political horserace via debates. Why? Here is my take on the…
10. Many candidates will fall within the error margin. Rankings become statistically meaningless.
9.1 Using decimal points makes statistically meaningless rankings even more meaningless.
7.9 – 8.1 Poll strew doesn’t necessarily taste very good. Some polls probe undecided voters to include “leaners,” others don’t. Some polls will be based on “likely” voters, others on registered voters. Poll results also vary when it comes to live or automated modes of data collection, proportion of cell phones vs. landlines, and weighting and analyzing data.
7. More problems. Some national polls take out “undecided” voters and recalculate based upon 100%. This wreaks havoc on averages.
5. Ok. I know I skipped number 6, but, then again, there’s no guarantee all polls will ask all candidates either.
5.1 (Couldn’t figure out where to place this item because it is not actually higher or lower than 5, statistically speaking). Some polls use push-button phones to record preferences. It’s tough to include 18 names when only numbers 1 thru 9 are usable.
4. “HELLLLOO” house effects.
3. Given that early caucus and primary states punch a candidate’s ticket to continue, why use a national average to determine debate participation?
2. Name recognition unduly influences results of early primary horserace polls. Lesser known candidates will now frontload their efforts to try to make the cutoff. Public polls altering campaign strategies? BAD!
1. And, finally, do you really want public polls this involved in a picking presidential nominee?
Try this on for size. How about a random drawing of half the field of announced candidates for the first hour of a debate and the second group for the second hour. More manageable. More equitable. And, doesn’t require a top 10 list!
The Hillary Clinton 1.0 “Listening Tour” and the 2.0 “Listening Tour” may be the same remedy from a campaign strategy point of view, but the circumstances are very different.
When seeking the U.S. Senate from New York, although well-known, she had never sought elective office and had to prove herself as a candidate in her own right. Also, there was the so-called “carpetbagger” issue which required her to learn about New York and demonstrate her ability to represent the state. The task before Clinton now, having been a senator, candidate for president, and Secretary of State, is to re-invent herself as someone who can connect and relate to Americans. Success will be measured in whether she can earn the public trust, rather than seem that she is once again inevitable and entitled. Lacking stiff competition for her party’s nomination, Clinton also needs to find a way to stay relevant over the next year to avoid being defined by the GOP. She also needs to stave off the Republicans characterizing the political agenda. The trip to Iowa seems like a good place to begin and the drive there an interesting attention grabber.
Right now, Clinton has a clear path to the nomination. But, Democrats do want to have a dialogue. She hopes the listening tour provides that interaction. The general election is more of a 50-50 proposition. Demographic changes are in her favor. When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, 87% of the electorate was white, and only 13% were people of color. Fast forward to 2012, white voters represented only 72% of the electorate and people of color had more than doubled to 28%. Will the Obama coalition turn out and be solid for Clinton? Will the GOP make any inroads with Latino voters?
Offsetting this “Demography is Destiny” thesis is the so-called “curse of the third term.” In 1988, Bush 41 was elected following President Reagan’s election and re-election. The previous time a president served a full eight years and then someone of the same party was elected was Rutherford B. Hayes following President Grant. History may repeat itself, but it doesn’t often.
Some time back, we added 24 x 7 and the permanent campaign to America’s political lexicon. But, it sure seems like we are pushing the envelope this time around with about 20 GOP wannabes off and (almost) running for their party’s nomination. On the Democratic side, things are atypically more organized with Hillary Clinton pretty much jogging around the track by herself. Cast in the role of inevitable this election cycle may play out better for her at least as far as the Democratic nod is concerned.
Last night, I was co-teaching Political Communication at Marist College along with Mary Griffith, The Marist Poll’s director of Media Initiatives and Polling News. The discussion moved onto the 1968 campaign and how Robert Kennedy didn’t declare his candidacy until that March after the New Hampshire primary. Recognizing that the rules of selecting nominees are wholly different than they were back then when I was still in high school… nonetheless, this drawn out testing of the waters, forming exploratory committees, and then, finally taking the plunge seems a bit overplayed this time.
Now, we are as guilty as anyone else, although not perhaps as guilty as the potential candidates, on jumping the starting gun. We have already conducted a series of polls, along with our NBC News media partner, of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. We have also done several national trial heats with the McClatchy News Service.
So, 24 X 7 and the permanent campaign welcome to 2016!
There are two schools of thought on whether Hillary Clinton is running for president in 2016. Some say she is and some say she isn’t.
Why? Because if Hillary Clinton is running for president, she’d be doing exactly what she’s been doing lately… a book tour, public pronouncements, TV appearances etc. If Hillary Clinton is not running for president, she’d also be doing exactly what she’s been doing lately… a book tour, public pronouncements, TV appearances etc.
There are several interesting take-aways from our recent NBC News/Marist Polls of Iowa and New Hampshire on what the public thinks about the former First Lady, former US Senator, and former Secretary of State. First off, Democrats are ready for Hillary. Her favorable rating with her party’s faithful is 89% in Iowa and 94% in New Hampshire. WOW! And, she trounces VP Joe Biden in both of these states in early hypothetical matchups by 50 points in Iowa and 56 points in New Hampshire. DOUBLE WOW!!
Dems may be ready for Hillary, but the rest of the voters in these two states are less than eager. In fact, she is closely matched against most of her potential GOP rivals, and is under 50% in both states against all comers except Scott Walker in Iowa and Ted Cruz in New Hampshire. To make matters even less comforting for the Clinton for President team, each of the Republicans runs better in pairings against Clinton than their own favorability rating. In other words, Hillary Clinton unifies the GOP opposition. Right now, she’d make Iowa and New Hampshire, states that Obama carried both times, swing states. Not a pretty picture for the Democrats.
So, Hillary Clinton may ultimately toss her hat into the ring. And, she may have a clear path to her party’s nomination. But, she will have to go through a prolonged battle against her eventual GOP opponent before anyone should talk of her winning the White House.
Change is usually a welcome sign in politics for a challenger looking to unseat an incumbent. But, so far, in NYS the sentiment to move in a new direction is not providing Rob Astorino, the GOP challenger to Governor Andrew Cuomo, the kind of boost he needs. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC 4 NY/Marist Poll, 57% of voters think NYS needs major changes. Although this is down from the 73% who held this view when Cuomo first took office, it could provide the foundation for a serious challenge to the first term governor, all things being equal.
But, all things are not equal. 55% of NYS voters are confident Cuomo is changing state government for the better. They see the incumbent as a strong leader and as someone who cares about the average person. Yet, don’t expect a record-breaking re-election for Cuomo. His approval rating at 48% is not off the charts. Although most NYers think the worst of the economic slump is behind them, 60% still think the state is in a recession.
Right now, a majority of NYS voters do not know enough about Astorino to have an opinion of him. That represents an opportunity for him but also carries a risk. Once the Cuomo campaign shifts into high gear, they will try to define Astorino as unacceptable to NY voters. Unless Astorino can set his sails to the winds of change, he will finish a distant second.
Registered voters early. Likely voters later. Public polls serve their audience well by capturing the views of the electorate at an appropriate time and communicate precisely what group of voters they are including in their tabulations.
Early in a contest, before voters have focused on the candidates or the race, maybe even before they even know a seat is being contested later that fall, The Marist Poll, along with its NBC News partner offers a preliminary look at voters and candidates. This is when registered voters, the entire potential electorate, is measured. It is the only group of voters whose views can be legitimately assessed this early.
It would be simpler to report the preferences of likely voters six months out from an election, and trend those numbers as Election Day approaches, but simpler doesn’t make it possible or right. In fact, to designate an individual who is likely to vote far away from an election would be misleading. It is hard enough identifying a pool of likely voters close to an election. Doing so long in advance is a misuse of public poll technology and data.
Why not model early poll results to a previous general election turnout? Again, let’s not get ahead of our skis here. It would make matters easier if history repeated itself when it comes to the composition of an electorate. But, the future is not always as we remember it. Demography changes from election to election, as does the interest level of different groups of voters, and the ability of campaigns to turn out their supporters. Campaigns and candidates matter, as does the changing demographic landscape on which these battles are waged. Without these important factors considered close to Election Day, you easily can end up with public polls predicting a President Romney.
As for the growing interest in predicting elections without poll data, good luck to you! The more successful forecasting models will include rigorous, scientific public polls in their equation to capture the unique dynamics of each election cycle. Why are the early forecasting models of who will win the majority of the U.S. Senate all over the place… ranging from around a 40% chance of the Republicans gaining control to roughly a 75% “probability”? It’s a long way to Election Day and some models are adjusting for early public polls, others are not. More on this in a subsequent discussion.
So, why bother with early public polls? There are several solid reasons. First, the candidates are conducting their private surveys to base campaign strategy or to offer early spin on a contest. An independent source of poll data, available to journalists and the public, is a useful guide in understanding how competitive a race is. Second, follow-up polls provide insights into how a contest is trending. No harm there, as long as you are comparing apples to apples… registered voters to registered voters and later, likely voters to likely voters.
Are early polls of registered voters predictive of the eventual election result? Of course, not. That’s why there are campaigns. But, that is not what we are tasking with these early measurements. The segment of the electorate, if carefully measured and communicated accurately, can be helpful in assessing campaign politics, especially given the earlier start to campaigns. 2014? Not just the mid-term elections, but 2016 is now already in view. The farsighted analysts will, no doubt, be shortly speculating about 2020, the election that will require perfect vision no doubt.