Monday, September 08, 2008

Polls, Polly! Polls!

The latest Post/ABC poll shows that John McCain has pulled up even with Barack Obama in the race for president, 49 to 47 percent, with a sampling error of +/- four points. In fact, a whole slew of polls held over the weekend say essentially the same thing: McCain got quite the post-convention bump, anywhere from 4-13 percentage points depending on who you believe.

A couple of things to ruminate on though.

1) Both and On the Media point out that the old phone-interview model tends to  underrepresent those who only own a cellphone. Conventional wisdom says that cellphone only voters (who live without a landline) tend to be younger, and tend to lean left. Could that mean a percentage point or two for Obama that will remain unaccounted for until November?

2) Pollsters tend to force undecided participants to choose a side. Polls with a large number of undecided don't "sell" well. We want our two-party presidential polls to add up to nearly 100. However, as David Moore, a former senior editor at Gallop for 13 years, points out:
"One can take a look, for example, at the recent Gallup Daily Tracking Poll. They asked the question - if the election were held today, who you would you vote for, you know, Barack Obama or John McCain? They find that somewhere around 95 percent of the people have made up their mind.

But, of course, the election’s not being held today, so it’s a hypothetical race. The way you could ask the question is, do you support Obama, do you support McCain, or haven't you made up your mind yet? Right now there are probably around 35 to 40 percent of voters who are undecided.

Well, I think the reason the media pollsters don't want to emphasize the undecided vote is that they think the media, the journalists, would not be interested in a poll that said there are 40 percent of the people undecided. They’d say - but gee, if people haven't begun to just make up their minds yet, or such a large segment, why don't we wait and start polling later?"
That, of course, would put pollsters out of a job. Even by a more conservative estimate, Slate's Paul Maslin estimates the number of undecideds at around 10 percent, which means either candidate still has a good chance of pulling away from the statistical dead heat we're in right now.

All that to say, with the debates ahead (not to mention increasing tensions in Afghanistan), it's still anyone's game.

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