But there is a central flaw in private polling, at least what we get to see of it: Most campaign surveys are presented with a heavy dose of spin. The goals are also different, with a premium on testing messages and anticipating the effects of strategic decisions, often with tenuous assumptions about “likely voters” that may prove wrong.
Nor are campaigns reliable interpreters. Testifying under oath in the trial of former presidential contender John Edwards, Harrison Hickman, Edwards’s onetime pollster, said that the campaign used public polls as “propaganda.” Even though he privately counseled that Edwards had almost no chance of winning the 2008 Iowa caucuses, he said he monitored all the polls and sent “the ones that were most favorable because [campaign aides] wanted to share them with our supporters.”
“Out of a big stack of acorns,” Hickman said, “I was trying to pick out a few good ones that they could pass along to other people, you know, to keep them working.”
Election analysis should look at the big picture, not a few acorns.
2. Polls prove that the first presidential debate upended the race.
Immediately after the debate, coverage focused on polls that moved in Romney’s direction. After all, a Gallup survey showed that 72 percent of debate-watchers said Romney did a better job, the most lopsided debate readout Gallup has ever recorded.
But there is little evidence that the debate decisively moved the needle in key swing states. In six state surveys released Thursday by two well-regarded polling partnerships — NBC-Wall Street Journal-Marist and CBS-New York Times-Quinnipiac — there were virtually no shifts for either candidate compared with pre-debate polls.
Nationally, the debate effect may have quickly faded. In Washington Post-ABC News polling after last week’s face-off, voters had more positive reactions to Romney on the first two nights after the debate than on the next two. In Gallup tracking, the post-debate tally is nearly identical to what it was in the preceding days. And one new Florida poll shows momentum for Romney, but another doesn’t.
The presidential race has long been characterized as tightly competitive and voters as overwhelmingly locked-in. The first debate seems to have done little to alter these basic, well-documented story lines.
3. The best polls are those that correctly predict an election’s outcome.
Getting elections “right” is a necessary but insufficient reason to put great stock in polls. Some surveys could be well-modeled — adjusted to previous elections or to hunches, including, some surmise, tweaks to agree with other polls. (Few pollsters relish being an outlier.)
Both the Republican-leaning Rasmussen Reports and the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling have track records that some view favorably, but both use automated phone calls with recorded voices to collect data (“Press 1 for Obama, 2 for Romney,” etc.), revealing a basic flaw: It’s against federal law to have computers dial cellphones, so most “robopolls” ignore about 30 percent of U.S. adults.