5/28: Top 10 Reasons Why Polls Should Not be Used to Determine Eligibility for Debates

May 28, 2015 by  
Filed under Featured, Lee Miringoff

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!

4/14: Removing the Label of Inevitability?

April 14, 2015 by  
Filed under Featured, Lee Miringoff

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.

caricature of Lee MiringoffWhen 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.

2/19: It’s Getting Later Earlier

February 19, 2015 by  
Filed under Featured, Lee Miringoff

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.

caricature of Lee MiringoffLast 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!

7/25: Candidate Clinton? 50-50 Odds Are Never a Sure Bet

July 25, 2014 by  
Filed under Blog, Featured, Lee Miringoff

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.

But, is Clinton in essence already on the campaign trail?  I don’t know.  What have we learned about whether she will eventually run for real?  I don’t know.

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.

7/9: Incumbent Cuomo Favored by Those Who Want Change

July 9, 2014 by  
Filed under Blog, Featured, Lee Miringoff

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.

6/2: Likely Voters: Why Later Not Now

June 2, 2014 by  
Filed under Featured, Lee Miringoff

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.

caricature of Lee MiringoffEarly 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.

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.

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