The Campaign Spot

What John McLaughlin Sees in the Polls Right Now

I reached out to Republican pollster John McLaughlin for yesterday’s piece on how undecided voters are likely to break, and he made some separate comments about polls, their impact on motivation for each side, and how the campaigns want to use skewed poll numbers to depress the opposition.

How he’s defining likely voters right now: “For the most part we’re polling likely voters. It’s a loose screen. We keep people who say they’re only somewhat likely to vote. But the vast majority say that they are definitely or very likely to vote. They’re voting.”

How campaigns try to sway polling results: “In a close race, the operatives are trying to manipulate the turnout through their paid and earned media. The earned media includes lobbying and trying to skew the public polls. Historically the most egregious case was the 2000 Gore campaign’s lobbying the networks’ exit pollsters for an early, and wrong, call in Florida. This suppressed the Florida Panhandle and Western state turnout.” (Polls close at different times in different parts of the state, because the state stretches into two time zones.) “In our post-election Florida poll, we found that thousands of Panhandle Floridians heard the call and although their polls were still open for an hour in a close national race decided not to vote. Panhandle voters went two-to-one for Bush. The CBS early wrong call nearly triggered a national crisis.”

On what a realistic partisan breakdown would look like: “The 2004 national exit polls showed an even partisan turnout and Bush won 51–48. Had it been the +4 Democratic edge of 2000, John Kerry would have been president. 2008 was a Democratic wave that gave them a +7 partisan advantage. 2010 was a Republican edge. There’s no wave right now. There are about a dozen swing states where in total millions of voters who voted in 2008 for Obama are gone or have not voted since. There are also hundreds of thousands of voters in each of several swing states like Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, and others who voted from rural, exurban or suburban areas in 2004 for Bush who did not vote in 2008, because they were not excited by McCain or thought he would lose. They are currently planning to vote mainly as a vote against President Obama.”

What Obama and his allies are doing now: “The Democrats want to convince [these anti-Obama voters] falsely that Romney will lose to discourage them from voting. So they lobby the pollsters to weight their surveys to emulate the 2008 Democrat-heavy models. They are lobbying them now to affect early voting. IVR [Interactive Voice Response] polls are heavily weighted. You can weight to whatever result you want. Some polls have included sizable segments of voters who say they are ‘not enthusiastic’ to vote or non-voters to dilute Republicans. Major pollsters have samples with Republican affiliation in the 20 to 30 percent range, at such low levels not seen since the 1960s in states like Virginia, Florida, North Carolina and which then place Obama ahead. The intended effect is to suppress Republican turnout through media polling bias. We’ll see a lot more of this. Then there’s the debate between calling off a random-digit dial of phone exchanges vs. a known sample of actual registered voters. Most polls favoring Obama are random and not off the actual voter list. That’s too expensive” for some pollsters.

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