The Politics Of Election Polls
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
President Obama has held a lead over Mitt Romney in the polls for several weeks now, and that's prompted a conservative reaction. Some are charging that big media outlets are intentionally designing their polling to make it look like the president is getting the kind of voter surge he had in 2008. NPR's David Folkenflik has the story.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The political blogger Dean Chambers created the website unskewedpolls.com this past summer. Chambers says many pollsters are making an honest but big mistake in assuming Democrats will significantly outnumber Republicans in the voting booth. He says not all those mistakes are innocent.
DEAN CHAMBERS: There are few instances where I see the polls as being very skewed to the extreme, and in that case I think they're either incompetent at putting together a proper sample, or in some instances they just may be biased.
FOLKENFLIK: That is, deliberately stuffing their polls full of Democrats to affect the outcome. When he does what he calls unskewing the polls, they show a statistical dead heat. Frank Newport is editor-in-chief of Gallup, one of the nation's best known public opinion shops. He says that's a significant misreading of how polls work. For a lot of voters, Newport says, party identification isn't fixed like gender, but fluid.
FRANK NEWPORT: Party ID, saying that I lean to the Democratic Party, is the same thing as saying I'm also going to vote for Obama. So they're both manifestations of the same underlying phenomena.
FOLKENFLIK: Newport says if you randomly select people in a methodologically valid poll, who disproportionally say they feel tied to one party rather than the other, that's okay.
NEWPORT: You know, the bottom line is the bottom line, and you shouldn't waste time, I think, trying to look at the question of party ID.
FOLKENFLIK: Professional pollsters do weight their polls to make sure that certain kinds of voters are adequately represented - women, Latinos, African Americans, senior citizens. Many make a special push to find people who rely exclusively on cell phones, as young voters are less likely to pay for land lines. But pollsters like Gallup don't recalibrate for party ID. Here's why that matters. Recent polls with an imbalance toward Democrats have buoyed President Obama, but yielded coverage that sounded funereal for the chances of his Republican challenger, Governor Mitt Romney.
(SOUNDBITE OF MSNBC BROADCAST)
SCOTT PELLEY: Nearly one out of three voters in Florida is over 65. A month ago, Mr. Obama trailed among seniors by 13 points. In our new poll today, he is ahead by four.
CHRIS CILLIZZA: Obama up seven in Ohio, up five in Florida, up seven in Virginia.
FOLKENFLIK: That's CBS News anchor Scott Pelley, and the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza on MSNBC. Such reports inspired a backlash with conservatives, including Rush Limbaugh, arguing the mainstream media isn't just rejoicing in good news for the Obama campaign, but creating it.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: These two polls today are designed to convince everybody this election is over.
FOLKENFLIK: Fox News gave the question a ton of play, and Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom showed up to stoke the fires.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)
ERIC FEHRNSTROM: I don't know of any campaign operative or political scientist in the country who thinks Democrats are going to show up in the same numbers...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So are you dismissing these polls?
FEHRNSTROM: ...as four years ago.
FOLKENFLIK: Both parties routinely criticize the media. Liberal groups questioned polling showing Democrat John Kerry trailing the ultimately successful George W. Bush in 2004. But now there are loud cries from conservative quarters.
NEWPORT: It's a war room mentality.
FOLKENFLIK: Again, Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport.
NEWPORT: And some of it's just the environment we're in. If there's something favorable to the other opponent, quickly get your word out there and try to delegitimize it by criticizing it, and that's what we're seeing now.
FOLKENFLIK: This week those same media outlets are releasing polls that seem less dire for Romney. Another day, another set of data to publish and to argue over. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.