Sunday, February 03, 2008

Old unreliable

It wasn't terribly long ago in recent times when political scientists and pundits could point to the national polls and say that those polls were reliable, and it was generally accepted that they were. As one of my old college professors put it "the polls are rarely ever wrong." History has proven that statement to be largely correct. In 1996, the Bob Dole campaign tried to put a brave face on a futile bid for the White House by saying that they didn't believe the polls. The national polls were proven correct even in 2000, when all outlets essentially predicted that the election would fall within the margin of error-and it certainly did.

Those inclined to ignore polls often point to the 1948 election as proof that the polls can get it wrong. What is often forgotten about the '48 vote is that Gallup canceled polling a month before the election itself, believing that New York Governor Thomas Dewey had an insurmountable lead. The press of the time was left believing that the last poll taken was accurate, when data would likely have shown Harry Truman overtaking Dewey in the days leading up to the vote.

Today's polling seems to be far more erratic and less reliable than recent history would suggest, especially where Tuesday's multi-State Republican primaries are concerned. Rasmussen has John McCain leading nationally over Mitt Romney as of Sunday, but only by two points-well within the margin of error. On Saturday, Rasmussen had McCain and Romney tied at 30% apiece. The Gallup Organization, once the "Old Reliable" of mainstream media polling outfits, published a poll yesterday showing John McCain with a 19 point lead over Romney nationally. These polls garner such radically different results that it is impossible that both are right, and it would not be unreasonable for the politically uninformed reader to think that both are BS.

One flaw in national polling for primaries is that they are "true" State-by-State individual contests, and national polls are often not reflective of the attitudes of primary voters within a particular State (this phenomenon has been discussed here recently). Even State polling is proving barely effective in estimating outcomes. Rasmussen and Insider Advantage place John McCain in the lead in Tennessee, but Rasmussen says Romney is in second and Insider Advantage says Mike Huckabee is in the number two spot with undecided voters deciding the outcome. Public Policy Polling and WSMV-TV Memphis each showed Mike Huckabee in the lead in their polls taken last week.

The results of many election polls are now so confusing and oftentimes contradictory that it is difficult to see them as reliable sources for the direction of an election-especially a primary.



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