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About Those Polls

by James Bowman

Posted: Oct 05, 2012 07:16 PM

Karl Rove in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal is the latest of those of the Romneyite persuasion to call into question the remarkably consistent polling data showing President Obama with a small but significant lead over their man. Obviously, this is something one has to be careful about. I am old enough to remember when certain vocal partisans of Barry Goldwater and of George McGovern, different as they no doubt were in so many other ways, were of one mind in thinking that people must be lying to the pollsters about their voting intentions. Mr Rove is wise enough not to go down that road, but he does point — as others have done before him — to the example of 1980 when the polls showed the incumbent President Carter eight points up on challenger Ronald Reagan in late October but Reagan ended up winning by ten. He also notes that Peter Brown of Quinnipiac is himself doubtful that his poll’s finding of a nine-point Democratic advantage in Florida can be right when it was only three points four years ago.

Yet neither Mr Brown nor Mr Rove offers any theory as to what it is that could be so skewing the result, assuming it is skewed. Some Republicans blame the bias of the pollsters who deliberately "weight" their sample towards Democratic voters in order to find an advantage for the President. This seems unlikely to me, if only because sheer commercial interest would prevent them from thus undermining their own credibility. Besides, most polls don’t weight their samples by party anyway. If they randomly pick more Democrats than Republicans it’s because more Democrats than Republicans are answering their questions. But could there be some significance in the different response rates themselves? As Michael Barone pointed out in The Washington Examiner, "the Pew Research Center reports that it’s getting only nine per cent of the people it contacts to respond to its questions. That's compared with 36 percent in 1997." Why do so many people not want to talk to pollsters? And is there any reason to think that more of those who don’t are Republican than Democrat?

Mr Barone speculates:

It may be that we’re seeing the phenomenon we’ve seen for years in exit polls, which have consistently skewed Democratic (and toward Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries). Part of that is interviewer error: Exit poll pioneer Warren Mitofsky found the biggest discrepancies between exit polls and actual results were in precincts where the interviewers were female graduate students. But he also found that Democrats were simply more willing to fill out the exit poll. Which raises the question: Are we seeing the same thing in this month's polls?

I am inclined to think that the answer is yes. As someone who routinely puts the phone down as soon as I hear the words "poll" or "survey," I can understand the poll fatigue that Michael Barone blames for the low response rate, but I am also aware of a vague sense of resentment against the pollsters for being a part of the whole media culture which I assume to be unsympathetic to my political views. It therefore seems likely to me that the non-responders refuse to answer because they see pollsters as an arm of the media, which they don’t trust. That mistrust of the media, as a recent Pew study showed, is rising among the population as a whole but it is higher among Tea Party Republicans than anybody else. They are twice as likely as the general population to say that there is "a great deal" of political bias in news coverage, so why would they cooperate with those seeking to make them part of their news coverage by answering poll questions? The belief in the pollsters’ bias towards Democrats could thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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