Politics & Policy

The Particulars of Polls

Mystery: Democratic registration is down, but Dem-party identification is up.

As a recovering pollster (I worked for Democratic pollster Peter Hart from 1974 to 1981), let me weigh in on the controversy over whether the polls are accurate. Many conservatives are claiming that multiple polls have overly Democratic samples, and some charge that media pollsters are trying to discourage Republican voters.

First, some points about the limits of polls. Random-sample polling is an imprecise instrument. There’s an error margin of 3 or 4 percent, and polling theory tells us that one out of 20 polls is wrong, with results outside the margin of error. Sometimes it’s easy to spot such an outlier, sometimes not.

In addition, it’s getting much harder for pollsters to get people to respond to interviews. The Pew Research Center reports that only 9 percent of the people it contacts respond to its questions. That’s compared with 36 percent in 1997.

Interestingly, response rates are much higher in new democracies. Americans, particularly in target states, might be getting poll fatigue. When a phone rings in New Hampshire, it could well be a pollster calling.

#ad#Are those 9 percent representative of the larger population? As that percentage declines, it seems increasingly possible that the sample is unrepresentative of the much larger voting public. One thing a poll can’t tell us is the opinion of people who refuse to be polled.

Then there is the problem of cell-phone-only households. In the 1930s and 1940s, pollsters conducted interviews in person because half of households had either no phone or (your grandparents can explain this) a party-line phone. By the 1970s, phone ownership was well nigh universal, and pollsters mostly phased out in-person interviewing. Phone interviews are much cheaper and quicker.

But today the percentage of households without landline phones is increasing. Under federal law, pollsters must dial cell-phone numbers by hand rather than by computer; computers dial landline numbers even when live interviewers ask the questions.

Cell-phone-only individuals tend to be younger and more Democratic than landline owners. Most pollsters are conducting a set number of interviews with cell-phone-only households, but they can only guess at what percentage of the electorate these respondents constitute. Oversample them, and you’ll get overly Democratic results.

That, many conservatives are arguing, is what pollsters have been getting in polls this month. They point out that Mitt Romney is running ahead among independents in many polls even though he trails overall.

This can happen only if Democrats have a big lead in party identification, as they did in 2008. In the exit poll then, 39 percent of voters identified themselves as Democrats and 32 percent as Republicans.

In contrast, exit polls showed an even break in party identification in 2004 and 2010. But many September polls and some earlier polls showed Democrats with an even bigger party identification lead than four years ago, in 2008.

That seems implausible. Party identification does change over time, as exit polls indicate, but it usually shifts gradually rather than suddenly, as current polls suggest.

There is evidence that since the Charlotte convention Democrats have become more motivated to vote and have narrowed the advantage in enthusiasm Republicans have had since 2010. In that case, more Democrats may be passing through screening questions and getting polled.

I don’t believe that any of the media pollsters have been tilting their results in order to demoralize Republicans, although I do look with suspicion on the work of some partisan pollsters.

But I do have my doubts about whether samples with more Democratic-party identification than in 2008 are accurate representations of the actual electorate. Many states with party registration have shown big drops in registered Democrats since then.

Pollster Scott Rasmussen, who weights his robocall results by party identification, adjusted monthly, has shown a much closer race than most pollsters who leave party identification numbers unweighted. So has the Susquehanna poll in Pennsylvania.

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 that 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. That raises the question: Are we seeing the same thing in this month’s polls?

— Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner. © 2012 The Washington Examiner. Distributed by Creators.com

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. © 2018 Creators.com

Most Popular

PC Culture

Defiant Dave Chappelle

When Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special Sticks & Stones came out in August, the overwhelming response from critics was that it was offensive, unacceptable garbage. Inkoo Kang of Slate declared that Chappelle’s “jokes make you wince.” Garrett Martin, in the online magazine Paste, maintained that the ... Read More
Film & TV

Joker: An Honest Treatment of Madness

When I saw that the New York Times and The New Yorker had run columns berating the new Joker movie, criticizing it not simply on cinematic grounds but instead insisting that the film amounted to a clandestine defense of “whiteness” in an attempt to buttress the electoral aim of “Republicans” — this is a ... Read More
White House

What Is Impeachment For?

W hat is impeachment for? Seems like a simple question. Constitutionally speaking, it also appears to have a simple answer: to cite and remove from power a president guilty of wrongdoing. Aye, there’s the rub. What sort of wrongdoing warrants removal from power? I’d wager that the flames of ... Read More
Elections

The Democrats’ Disastrous CNN LGBT Town Hall

A few days after Donald Trump committed the worst foreign-policy blunder of his presidency by betraying America’s Kurdish allies in northern Syria, former vice president Joe Biden, the elder statesman and co-frontrunner in the Democratic presidential primary, was on a national stage talking to CNN’s primetime ... Read More
Elections

Beto Proposes to Oppress Church with State

Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign is within the margin of error of non-existence, but in his failure he has found a purpose: expressing the Democratic id. His latest bid for left-wing love came at a CNN forum on gay rights, where he said that churches that oppose same-sex marriage should have to pay ... Read More