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Post Partisan
Posted at 12:11 PM ET, 11/12/2012

The real story about polling uncertainty

A quick look at the election results, along with the final polls, show how pointless the Republican “unskewed” spin was. Not merely how wrong — we all know that now — but how pointless.

If the goal was simply to convince voters that Mitt Romney had a plausible chance to win, then making up implausible nonsense was totally unnecessary.

Take a look: The final HuffPollster poll-of-polls estimate of the national vote had a 1.5-percentage-point advantage for Barack Obama. The actual election result, as of today, is a 2.7-percentage-point lead.

Colorado was the key state this cycle, the one that put Obama over the top. The final HuffPollster estimate for Colorado was just a 1.7-percentage-point Obama lead; the actual vote margin in the Rocky Mountain State appears to be 4.7 points. Or, one can think of it slightly differently: The HuffPollster map had Ohio as the state to give Obama 270 electoral votes and had Ohio with a 3.4-point Obama lead, compared with his actual tipping-point-state 4.7-point win.

What’s the point here? Yes, the polls were largely correct. Yes, the “unskewed” folks were talking nonsense. But you know what? Mitt Romney did have a realistic, if unlikely, chance to win going into Election Day, based on the polls.

The polls were off by almost a sufficient amount to have given Romney a win in the national vote; only they were off in the other direction, giving Obama a larger win than expected.

Now, don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying that the polls were “wrong.” The polls, overall and collectively, were not bad at all. Anyone reading Mark Blumenthal or Nate Silver or TPM and RCP, would have had a pretty good sense of what was going on.

But even good polls, even good aggregates of polls, still have some error. We expect them to have some error — or, at least, we should expect them to. And when we're talking about a close contest such as this one (or 2000, or 2004), the truth is, there’s somewhat less certainty indicated by the polls than many people seem to think.

Campaigns behind in the polls in close elections usually do have a real chance to win. There's nothing wrong with their emphasizing the upside if they think it helps keep voters energized, or even if it just cheers up campaign staff and volunteers. You really don't have to make up convoluted reasons for the polls being biased against your side; unless it looks like a blowout, there's plenty of uncertainty in a 1- or 2- or 3-point deficit.

So if Republicans really understood what the polls were telling them (and there’s plenty of question about that), then all they really had to do to spin the situation was to emphasize that uncertainty.

That they did more might indicate that they really did believe their own nonsense; at the very least, had they stuck to plausible stories about the polls, they might have managed to keep their supporters upbeat before the election without leaving them in shock after it — and without exposing themselves to ridicule from everyone else.

By  |  12:11 PM ET, 11/12/2012

 
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