Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has a huge lead. No, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is closing the gap. The next poll shows Sen. Obama running away with the election. With Sen. McCain it is a two-point race. No, Sen. Obama is seven points ahead. Confused? We all ought to be.
This election season there are polls galore - four times the number in 2000, close to three times the number in 2004. When we see on the same day one poll reporting that Sen. Obama is 16 points ahead of his rival, Sen. McCain, and another poll stating that there is a one-point differential, essentially a statistical tie, we can’t figure out what is transpiring.
Let me attempt to explain. To obtain an accurate or reasonably accurate sampling of American voter sentiment we must know precisely the composition of the American electorate. One poll or survey - whatever it is called - may have included all respondents, registered to vote or not. Another on the same day may have included only folks registered to vote. Yet another on that day may be based upon a group of respondents evaluated most likely to vote. Hence, we could have three very differing results.
When I was consulting with campaigns we usually took a survey at the beginning of the race to determine where the candidate stood in terms of name recognition, positives, negatives, match-up with the likely opposition, so on. Around the middle of the campaign we would survey the same folks to learn if we had made progress in swinging voters in our direction and to gain information as to how our positives and negatives stood. We then surveyed a week out so we would know what we needed to do to close the gap and win the election.
This year is hardly like that. Every local and national media outlet wants to poll. Inasmuch as survey research is only a snapshot in time, trends are important. If our candidate is ahead by five points but the significant trends are contrary our candidate easily could lose if corrective steps are not taken. The polls this year appear to be something else. They appear to be driving results. The media very much favors one of the candidates for president. By overly sampling or choosing a polling organization, perhaps a university, which has had little polling experience, those commissioning the poll may secure the result they wish. A series of quickie polls all showing one candidate way ahead can demoralize the opposition.
In addition - but very important, the geography of a presidential poll is very significant. Everybody knows the District of Columbia and Massachusetts will vote overwhelmingly Democratic, Alaska and several small Mountain and North Central States will vote Republican (if not necessarily as overwhelmingly). Thus, polling of swing states is much more meaningful.
Polls are not cheap. I wonder how some small newspapers have the money for a poll, especially because, with few exceptions, newspaper circulation is down. Even The New York Times has laid off hundreds of employees. The Christian Science Monitor is folding. Some people have suggested that the Obama campaign is paying for some polls, to keep up momentum. I have no evidence that this has occurred. However, many lesser media outlets are unable to pay for polls. Thus, it appears that some polling is used to drive results rather than to provide a snapshot in time as to a candidate’s support.
It’s a cliché that is worth repeating: There is only one poll which counts - Election Day. In those states which have early voting Democrats and Republicans appear to be neck and neck. We well may be in for a long night on Nov. 4.