Can We Believe the Presidential Polls?

Karl Rove knows a lot more about polls than just about anyone on the planet and he has a lucid column on the state of Presidential polling with some great references to 1980 and 2004. The truth of the matter is today’s contest is a close race with momentum waxing and waning between the two camps.  Right now Team Romney is riding high but expect the President to come back hard in the next debate.  No one gives up the crown without a fight and to expect anything less would be a great disservice to what will likely be a struggle to the last day. Also, based on Rove’s examples below he must read this blog 😉

First, the open embrace of pro-Democrat polls to help Jimmy Carter in 2980:

On Oct. 8, 1980, the New York Times released its poll on the presidential race in Texas, one of 10 battlegrounds. (Yes, the Lone Star State was then a battleground.) According to the Times, the contest was “a virtual dead heat,” with President Jimmy Carter ahead despite earlier surveys showing Ronald Reagan winning… Then came more hard punches. On Oct. 13, Gallup put the race nationally at Carter 44%, Reagan 40%. The bottom appeared to fall out two weeks later when a new national Gallup poll had Carter 47%, Reagan 39%. That produced more than a few empty chairs in phone banks across Texas. But most volunteers, grim and stoic, hung on, determined to stay until the bitter end. Only Election Day was not so bitter. Reagan carried all 10 of the Times’ battleground states and defeated Mr. Carter by nearly 10 points.

2012 polling

In the past 30 days, there were 91 national polls (including each Gallup and Rasmussen daily tracking survey). Mr. Obama was at or above the magic number of 50% in just 20. His average was 47.9%. Mr. Romney’s was 45.5%.

2004 polling (the last time an incumbent was running for re-election)

There were 40 national polls over the same period in 2004. President George W. Bush was 50% or higher in 18. His average was 49%; Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was at 43.8%.

Media misrepresentations versus reality

An Oct. 4, 2004, story in the New York Times declared the Bush/Kerry race “a dead heat” and asked “whether Mr. Bush can regain the advantage.” Mr. Bush was hitting the vital 50% mark in almost half the polls (unlike Mr. Obama) and had a lead over Mr. Kerry twice as large as the one Mr. Obama now holds over Mr. Romney. So why was the 2004 race “a dead heat” while many commentators today say Mr. Obama is the clear favorite? The reality is that 2012 is a horse race and will remain so. An incumbent below 50% is in grave danger. On Election Day he’ll usually receive less than his final poll number. That’s because his detractors are more likely to turn out, and undecideds are more resistant to voting for him.

Unrealistic state polls

Then there is the tsunami of state-level polls. Last week, there were 46 polls in 22 states; the week before, 52 polls in 18 states; and the week before that, 41 polls in 20 states. They’re endowed by the media with a scientific precision they simply don’t have.

Take last week’s CBS/New York Times Florida survey, which had Mr. Obama leading Mr. Romney by nine points. The poll sampled more Democrats than Republicans—nine percentage points more. Yet the Democratic advantage in the 2008 presidential exit polls was three percentage points. Does it seem probable that Florida Democrats will turn out in higher numbers in 2012, especially when their registration edge over Republicans dropped by 22% in the past four years?

On Aug. 2, radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt asked Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University polling organization—which runs the CBS/NYT battleground state polls, including last week’s Florida poll—if he expected a Democratic advantage in the Sunshine State three times what it was last time. Mr. Brown responded that “I think it is probably unlikely,” but defended his polling organization’s record.


  1. No Tribe
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I just shake my head and go wow, really? On a nearly daily basis. CNN today came out with saying that their weighting for All Americans is:

    33– Democratic
    42– Independent

    For LV:


    What is the basis in believing that Democratic turnout in ’12 will be 8% among LV’s? It’s fictional.

  2. William Jefferson Jr.
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Did anyone else pay attention to the “shoutouts” to different states Obama gave during the debate? When a candidate talks about “the Mom from Iowa I spoke to,” that’s a good indication of which states the candidate thinks is a swing state. Two states interested me: Michigan and Minnesota. Obama mentioned both. Is he seeing softening there?

    • Posted October 4, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink | Reply

      I’m with you here. I was very surprised he went there as well. Sounds like plenty of soft support for Obama across the rust belt.

      • Posted October 4, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        I think he is seeing pretty soft actual support outside of the lIberal strongholds of California, NY, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, etc. I also think he got rattled, he was like the favored heavyweight who came out at the bell and immediately got tagged with haymaker punch to the point of the chin. He was rattled and i think was just reaching for names, places, dates, anything he could. He came across last night as 1) a small man. He was hunched, head down, arms closed in tight in front of him. Romney looked like the Lion in the room and 2) strangely like a guy RUNNING for POTUS not the POTUS. Most of his rattles about meeting him, her, them were all things that begged…But YOU ARE THE PRESIDENT NOW, why haven’t you fixed them.

        Romney’s line of “I don’t have a tax plan” was a double edged sword. He was saying #1 you have my idea factually wrong but #2 YOU are the President, my ideas are just that ideas…you have the record of failure, not me.

  3. Posted October 4, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Permalink | Reply

    from Breitbart

    ” A new poll of Illinois’ 10th Congressional District, which includes parts of Cook County, however, suggests the August poll might not be such an aberration. The poll, from WeAskAmerica, finds Obama with just a 2 point lead over Romney, 47-45 in the suburban district. Obama won the district in 2008 by 23 points.”

  4. margaret
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Back in 2004, when I first saw a photo of Romney on some magazine cover, I remember thinking that his guy actually looks like a POTUS. He’s actually a Hollywood stereotype of what a POTUS should look like. He also the bearing of a leader, one you would gravitate to in a crisis. Lastly, he has this paternalistic air, which he used last night to great effect against Obama, like he was the stern dad talking to the mis-behaving kid. It all worked together for Romney last night.

  5. Edward
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Folks here is the results of the bread and butter fundamentals so critical to political success. The composition of Ohio early voter registration may hint at, shhhh, a GOP blow out in OH. Follow the sound of the gunfire….

    • Edward
      Posted October 4, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Money shot from the cited article above: “Although it is early, we will soon be at a point where–assuming Republicans vote for Romney–the Democrats will have to overwhelmingly win all the remaining early voting just to be even on November 6. But, given Ohio’s voting history, if the numbers are even close after early voting, Obama will lose, and possibly lose big.”

      Ryun, whose group has opened voter registration efforts in Ohio and other swing states, said that the Buckeye State’s efforts to clean up voter rolls has also played a part in tightening the gap. He said that 450,000 dead voters and duplicate registrations have been nixed, and the majority were Democrats.

      “Considering Obama won the state by 263,000 votes, Ohio’s cleaner rolls could make a big impact,”

  6. bman77
    Posted October 4, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink | Reply

    That is great news from Ohio. I wonder if the professional pollsters will begin to adjust their party ID assumptions if those early numbers continue to hold up.

  7. Posted October 4, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I think we can “believe” the polls in the sense that if we ignore the top line figure and examine the internals, we can get an idea of where the race is at.

    Basically, RR almost always winning Indies, Obama needs a 2008 or better turnout to be tied or ahead.

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