The top 10 reasons pollsters would make good meteorologists are:
10. When surprised by a wintry forecast, a pollster already has experience using a big shovel to dig out
9. If a tornado is in the forecast, a pollster can instruct everyone on how to spin
8. When in doubt about tomorrow’s weather, a pollster can reference the ‘ol perfessor Casey Stengel (he taught Yogi Berra about Yogi-isms). “It’s very difficult making predictions, especially about the future”
7. Pollsters are already familiar with the map of the country although they are confused why meteorologists don’t color the states red and blue
6. Pollsters are 95% confident that, if they spot a few snowflakes, there are likely to be more
5. Pollsters are able to provide precise estimates of likely temperatures as in: “Expect tomorrow to be about 32 degrees, plus or minus 3 degrees”
4. Pollsters are experienced with anticipating landslides before they occur
3. Pollsters know that early predictions are about as reliable as the Farmer’s Almanac
2. A pollster knows that if the temperature is 80 degrees in Florida but only 40 degrees in Pennsylvania, the average temperature is 60
1. Pollsters have learned the hard way what a 70% chance of snow really means
My class this semester on “The Presidential Campaign of 2016” at Marist College is a group of talented and enthusiastic undergraduates bringing their fresh perspective to voting, this unprecedented presidential election, and the state of American democracy. It warms the political scientist side of my heart to interact with this current, idealistic, imaginative, and global-reaching generation of students which is about to inherit a messy and cynical world.
But, the pollster in me knows that voters throughout the United States are frustrated by the gridlock in government and discouraged by a presidential campaign that has sunk to the lowest common denominator. Regardless of whether Trump or Clinton wins the White House, they will be the most unpopular president to take office that we have ever had.
This year’s story began with the primaries during which each party had to deal with a strong anti-establishment candidate. It is said that Republicans typically fall in line and Democrats fall in love. Well, in 2016, the GOP has been slow to fall in line behind Donald Trump, and the candidate with whom Democrats fell in love is not their nominee. So, voters in both parties have had to drop down on their wish list, and for many it has been a tough pill to swallow.
To make matters even more difficult for voters in 2016, there are ongoing issues of corruption and money swirling around the Clinton candidacy. And, among many other concerns, the GOP candidate claims the election is rigged, and he may not accept the results of the people’s vote on Election Day unless he wins. The boundaries of political dialogue have certainly been stretched this year.
Elections are supposed to be about issues, policies, and a mandate to move government forward. Who would seriously argue that this campaign has been remotely issue focused? Who would legitimately claim that the winner can make a strong case for moving the country in a specific policy direction? Will there be enough of a kick from voters so that Washington moves away from the gridlock that has increasingly characterized our politics?
I became a political scientist and public opinion pollster because of my faith in public opinion, and a belief voiced many decades ago by V.O. Key that voters make the right decision if presented with accurate information. During my lifetime (starting with my high school years during the tragedies of 1968 and my first vote for president as a college student in 1972), much of what makes the American experiment unique in the history of civilization has eroded. This time, so much more is being threatened.
It is not only government and elections that are under the microscope. The institutions of religion, education, corporate business, the media, and others are taking their lumps, as well.
In class, I am eager to reference Abraham Lincoln’s comment that public opinion is the only legitimate sovereign in a democracy. I hope the millennial generation pushes us baby boomers aside and works to restore the element to our democracy with which we have seemed to have lost touch. It’s really the only path to a better future.
Lee M. Miringoff is Director of The Marist College Institute for Public Opinion and is a faculty member of the Political Science Department at Marist College.
The GOP and Democratic political conventions are finally upon us. They will be scored by the media for tone and how well each side makes its case to Americans. No sooner will the gavel end these proceedings for campaign 2016, then those of us in the public opinion community will try to measure how the public reacted. But, beware the post-convention bounce. If history is any guide, there is no guarantee that there will be a significant change in the presidential contest as a result of the conventions, or that it will be long-lasting.
Relying upon public opinion polls to draw accurate conclusions about the relative success of each convention can be tricky. There is no one, proven formula to anticipate what is a “good,” post-convention bounce, and subsequently, what “good” or “bad” means for the future of each campaign.
In fact, there are many factors which give meaning to post-convention polls. First, both Trump and Clinton are well-known to the public even if neither one is particularly well-liked. The spectacles in Cleveland and Philadelphia are likely to have important and lasting moments, but the public is not likely to learn much new about either presidential candidate.
Second, history tells us that the underdog is more likely to receive a significant post-convention lift, but it is, more times than not, short-lived. Barry Goldwater and Walter Mondale are two examples that come to mind. But, with candidates at the top of each 2016 ticket that are already household names, in a campaign that has had its unprecedented share of surprises, who exactly is the underdog?
Third, the most recent and impactful convention was 1992. Bill Clinton rose to the occasion. But, there were other factors at work including the unexpected withdrawal of Ross Perot as the convention came to a close.
Fourth, like the last two quadrennial gatherings, these conventions are back-to-back. For political junkies, this may give the appearance of one two-week political fix and reduce the potential for a significant change in the contest.
This is not to say that the conventions will be irrelevant. Unforced errors, in what are increasingly well-scripted events, can still occur. Clint Eastwood’s chair comes to mind. Also, according to the latest McClatchy-Marist Poll, both Trump and Clinton have plenty of work to do. Trump needs to secure supporters of the other 16 candidates during the primaries. Right now, Trump has the support of only 60% of voters who said they backed someone else in a GOP primary. Clinton still needs to convince Sanders’ backers that she is the right choice. Clinton only attracts 57% of those who “felt the Bern” during the nomination fight.
Of course, the reaction of the national electorate to the conventions obscures how voters in each state (and therefore, the Electoral College totals) view the four nights of the political hoopla in Cleveland and Philadelphia. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist Poll conducted pre-convention surveys in seven key battleground states. They show very competitive races in the Midwest states of Iowa and Ohio and a Clinton advantage in Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Pre-convention, Trump and Clinton both have negatives that outpace their positives.
What should you look for post-convention? Have there been any changes in Americans’ impressions of the candidates? Has the political dialogue changed, and which candidate’s agenda is ruling the day? Does their respective selection for Vice President suggest leadership, consensus, or pandering? Does it reflect an appeal to their base supporters or an opportunity to reach out to undecided voters? Do the candidates score differently as tickets post-convention than they did pre-convention when matched one on one? The plan is to revisit these states after the shows move on to see whether voters have changed.
Whatever the result of the conventions, one thing we do know for sure. Most Americans believe this is an election that will truly make a difference depending upon who wins or loses. 73% of Americans express this opinion today compared with only 60% who shared this view just four years ago.
So, will there be a bounce? Will it be long-lasting? Or, just a blip. Stay tuned.
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 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.
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!
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.)
A 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!
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.
If 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.