October 29, 2010 in Nation/World

Poll results vary widely; candidates cherry-pick findings

David Espo Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Ohio Republican gubernatorial candidate John Kasich talks to supporters this week at a rally at the Strongsville Community Center.
(Full-size photo)

Nuanced science

Many firms have their own techniques for separating the “likely voters” from the rest of the electorate, often ranking individuals on a scale of 1-10 to gauge the probability they will cast ballots. Some pollsters also adjust the demographic blend that results from phone calls to make it more reflective of the known makeup of the voting age population, a process known as weighting.

WASHINGTON – When a widely publicized poll showed Republican John Kasich with a commanding, 10-point advantage in Ohio’s governor’s race, aides to Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland fought back hard.

Against the poll.

“With just two weeks until Election Day, it is our opinion that the Quinnipiac polls are irresponsible, inaccurate and completely removed from the reality of the Ohio governor’s race,” the campaign said in a statement that noted other private and public surveys were showing a much closer contest.

The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, an organization with an unchallenged reputation for nonpartisanship, responded mildly. “We stand by our numbers and our overall record for reliability,” said Doug Schwartz, the organization’s polling director.

The flare-up underscored a widely held view among both politicians and pollsters that polls, once used largely to help a candidate shape strategy, increasingly can affect the outcome of political campaigns in the Internet Age. Candidates and their allies instantly disseminate bare-bones results, seizing on those that reflect well on their own prospects, ignoring the rest and generally skipping over details that might caution people about reading too much into them.

“They can affect contributions. They do affect news coverage in a substantial way. They can affect volunteers. They can affect (voter) interest, and through all those things can affect the outcome” of a race, said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster not involved in the Ohio governor’s contest.

According to HuffPost Pollster, 26 polls have been released on the Strickland-Kasich race since Labor Day by 13 organizations. An additional 22 surveys cover the Illinois Senate race, 21 a three-way Florida Senate contest and 20 the contest in Nevada.

As in Ohio, many produce startlingly different results within the space of a few days for reasons that go unexplained in the daily communications battle of modern-day campaigns.

“The public has an absolute right to be skeptical about any polling information” that doesn’t include detailed material, said Richard Czuba, whose Detroit-based firm, Glengariff Group, Inc., does survey work for the Detroit News.

Demographics – making sure a survey reflects the views of a proper mix of men, women, older and younger voters, Republicans and Democrats – are critical to producing a poll that is reliable. A pollster’s decisions on which respondents are likely to vote is key.

Professional pollsters also differ on another big issue.

Most if not all firms that work for candidates and the major political parties, as well as Quinnipiac and some other organizations, use live phone operators to ask questions.

Other well-known pollsters such as Rasmussen, Public Policy Polling and SurveyUSA Research rely on automated calls, in which an individual who answers the phone responds to a series of recorded questions by touching the appropriate number on the keypad.

Automated calls are cheaper, but a debate flourishes about their relative reliability.

Advocates of automated calling also point to examples in which automated polls appeared to detect the mood of an electorate sooner than operator-assisted calls. They cite last spring’s Republican Senate primary in Kentucky, where automated polls showed tea party-backed Rand Paul well ahead of Trey Grayson at a time private surveys by veteran Republican pollsters showed the race tight.

The differing approaches account for at least some of the variances in poll results, but some users of surveys consider the potential political bias of the source, as well.

Among Democrats, Rasmussen is widely viewed as partial to Republicans. PPP calls itself a Democratic polling firm. Both organizations say their polling is statistically sound.

Whatever the process, the results vary widely.

A mid-September Quinnipiac poll showed Kasich with a 17-point lead that was larger than any other survey before or since.

The group of likely voters was 54 percent male and 46 percent female, even though women have outnumbered men in nearly all statewide elections in the United States over the past few decades. Independents accounted for 34 percent of all likely voters, Republicans for 32 percent and Democrats 29.

A few days earlier, PPP had released an Ohio survey in which women outnumbered men among likely voters, 53-47, a breakdown more in line with private surveys. Republicans and Democrats each accounted for 40 percent of likely voters, and independents for 20. That poll showed Strickland trailing by 10 points.

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