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January 29, 2015

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Jon Ralston: The consequences of flawed public polling

Harry Reid is dead (again), one in an occasional series:

With the release of three polls this week showing Sharron Angle inching ahead of Reid (although within the margin of error), I am reminded of what happens when I ask audiences these days to raise their hands if they will vote against Harry Reid, no matter what — say, Angle resorting to a Second Amendment remedy on an especially obnoxious mainstream media member.

Without fail about half the hands in the room go up (and I bet some are afraid to do so). And at some events, such as one Thursday in Northern Nevada, nearly two-thirds of the attendees raised their hands.

I bring this up because Reid has such an imbued Anybody But Harry vote that he has had to employ a long-predetermined strategy of scorching the earth with Angle’s own incendiary words so that she would be burned beyond any recognition and unelectable.

That mission either has been accomplished — or simply cannot be. She either has been so marginalized that she actually is a walking political corpse. Or even Angle could not reanimate the ambulatory dead man known as Harry Reid.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s analysis — polls and what they really tell us. Polling is arcane to most laymen — and, alas, to most media folks. But public polling, which is as flawed this cycle as any I have covered, can create and drive a narrative.

If you think I am alone in my observation about public polls, consider what the inestimable pundit Charlie Cook wrote a couple of weeks ago:

“More than in any previous cycle that we’ve witnessed, perceptions of the ebb and flow of races are being driven by state- and district-level polling. This does not mean that there is better polling, just more … Probably 90 percent of the public polling in statewide and district races is mediocre at best, and much of it is very close to worthless.”

Exactly. And why? Because it is done on the cheap and the internals of the poll often expose, as Cook and others (including yours truly) have pointed out, why they are worthless.

Cook made another key point — that polling done for news organizations often is less than reliable:

“I should echo an argument made several weeks ago by my good friend and competitor Stu Rothenberg. He scoffed at those who mistakenly believed that polls conducted independently from the candidates and parties were inherently better or more reliable than campaign polling. My view is that most academic polling, as well as the polling sponsored by local television stations and newspapers, is dime-store junk.”

Mason-Dixon, driving the Las Vegas Review-Journal narrative in this contest, has used an array of samples and ballot tests, without much consistency. But it’s not just local news organizations that are doing a disservice and driving a narrative — let’s look at the polls released this week:

• CNN: 42-40, Angle. The survey did not poll anyone under 35 — some of those young ’uns do vote — and even worse, it gave independent voters (only 15 percent of the electorate here) comparable weight as Democrats and Republicans, who have twice the registration of nonpartisans.

• Fox: 49-46, Angle. These are push-button polls by an offshoot of Rasmussen Reports. This one surveyed more men than women (no one thinks that will be the actual composition) and more Republicans than Democrats (even Republican strategists don’t think the enthusiasm gap will make up for a 5 percentage point deficit in registration).

• Rasmussen: 50-46, Angle. Rasmussen, another auto-dialer company, has long been thought to skew GOP, although it has had some success in calling races. But the ballot test here is off by not having a “none of the above” option and not listing the other candidates.

Some blind Anglophiles or Reidophobics will insist that this is some kind of partisan analysis. It’s not. It’s science. Those sampling errors could invalidate those polls — they at least render them questionable.

As Cook put it: “The far more sophisticated polling is done by top-notch professional polling firms for campaigns, parties and major business and labor organizations. These polls are considerably more expensive and the methodology is more rigorous.

“Most of these surveys are not made public, but insiders can be made aware of them.”

So, as Cook points out, there are two separate conversations, the public and private. And the private one is that Reid is slightly ahead, not Angle. I would bet a lot of money both campaigns think he is slightly ahead.

And yet: Raise your hands if you won’t vote for Harry Reid no matter what happens.

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  1. How are we supposed to believe the top lines if the figures used to get there can't be trusted? Thanks, Mr. Ralston, for pointing out the obvious.

  2. How about a common sense poll. Everyday you read and hear that yet another Republican establishment individual is endorsing Harry Reid. Yesterday it was the Senate Minority Leader Raggio the top Republican in Nevada, Today its the late Kenny Guinn's wife who has endorsed Harry. Are all these folks nuts I dont think so. I believe when the results are tabulated that we will find that Nevadans still have Common Sense and recognize whats real. That is that Sharron Angle will do absolutely nothing for Nevadans. She would expect us to blindly follow what she and her lord tell us to do.
    My answer to her is the same that Gen McCaulife said to the german army commander who asked him to surrender at the battle of the bulge

  3. Excellent analysis Jon. I understand that there are those who will not accept what you have to say and attack you for being partisan. But its just basic common sense. Garbage in garbage out. It's easy to skew a poll. If you want good objective results you put good objective data in.

    I am cynical and believe that a certain result is desired. These polls mentioned are not interested in objective results. So you don't include under 35 or sample too many people of color or interview proportionally more of one group. I see it as a psychological tool to give the perception that one candidate is pulling away and appears to be leading.Well that tool can backfire and motivate the backers of the perceived underdog to work even harder.

  4. No mention at all about the "cell-phone gap"? Cell phones cannot be polled. And most persons with even a modicum of technical savvy examine caller-id before answering a phone call; unrecognized number: won't answer. This is a massive source of systematic error in modern polling. It's much bigger than the 1/sqrt(sample_size) when even that is quoted.

    Please media folk, ask yourself who is answering a land-line phone call blindly between 6pm-9pm?? not me, and not you. Therefore our subpopulations aren't being sampled.

  5. Bobby...
    I think Harry has some serious "ammo" he is saving.
    If he needs it, and it appears he will, the s..t will hit the fan.
    As to the polling;
    The polls we SEE are now just another tool from the right or the left to lend credence and support to their candidate, instead of a snapshot of reality, as the public is led to believe.
    Ask the right questions of the right people, you get the right answers!!!

  6. Thanks for the laugh Ralston.

    It will be interesting to see what happens on the night of Nov 2nd.

    You always cheer me up with your jokes. Yeah....I always believe a poll number reported by a campaign. Funny....funny...funny...funny.

    "Martha Coakley enjoys a solid, double-digit lead in the Massachusetts Senate special election, according to an internal Democratic poll obtained by POLITICO.

    The survey, conducted by longtime Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, has Democrat Coakley, the state attorney general, leading state Republican Sen. Scott Brown 50 percent to 36 percent."

    Private Democratic Campaign Poll 1/11/10 - Brown trails by 14 points

    Public Poll - Rasmuessen - 1/12/10 Brown trails by 2 points

    Election Day - 1/20/10 Brown wins by 5 points

  7. "How about a common sense poll. Everyday you read and hear that yet another Republican establishment individual is endorsing Harry Reid. Yesterday it was the Senate Minority Leader Raggio the top Republican in Nevada, Today its the late Kenny Guinn's wife who has endorsed Harry. Are all these folks nuts I dont think so. I believe when the results are tabulated that we will find that Nevadans still have Common Sense and recognize whats real ..."

    These folks aren't all nuts as you said, but they all belong to one and the same party.

  8. "Some blind Anglophiles or Reidophobics will insist that this is some kind of partisan analysis. It's not. It's science."

    And as we all know, science has a well-established liberal bias.

  9. The Republicants try and spin everything in their favor no matter what. Senator Harry Reid's will emerge the victor again. Their are too many prominent Republicants speaking out against Sharron Angle. The people will vote for her just want to grab their guns and go jumping up and down in the streets like the nut she is, in my opinion. What really is bothersome is what will happen if Sandoval gets elected. Big business will be ecstatic and the bank will have their way again. Meanwhile, what is left of the middle class will continue picking up the bill. Through this entire campaign the Republicants have just ignored what the Bush administration did do this country. That tells me what they have up their sleeves in Nov. How they can continue to blame this whole mess on Senator Reid is appalling, they must be delusional.

  10. pri1ncess (RICHARD BRUIN):

    IMHO, the delusional behavior of some on the right is very obvious. I saw a video clip of John Boehner addressing a group of conservatives asking the question, "Where are the jobs this administration promised us?"

    The hypocrisy of the republicans in Congress and some of their supporters is not based on delusion. it's based on lying, lying, and lying again.

    Not once did Boehner mention that it has been a deliberate tactic of the republicans in Congress to block any job-creating legislation in the hope that they could make the economic conditions so bad that voters would flock to them in droves in November.

    None of the republicans in Congress would allow a bill to continue TANF to come to the floor in the Senate, and as of September 30, 2010, 100,000 Americans lost their jobs. TANF enjoys bipartisan support and has been shown to be a very effective instrument in getting people back to work. Governor Haley Barbour (R-Mississippi) praised the TANF program in helping put people to work in his state.

    Q. Why wouldn't republicans in the Senate allow the TANF extension bill to come to the floor?

    A. They were afraid that, even though they like TANF and have no objections to it, it would help the democrats in the midterms. Never mind the people who wanted/needed to work. That had nothing to do with their decision. They just wanted to take vengeance on the democrats and President Obama. They never thought about the vengeance that they were wreaking on families and children. When those who lost their jobs in the TANF program file for unemployment, and the unemployment rate goes up, look for Boehner, Cantor, or McConnell to step up and ask, "Where are the jobs this administration promised us?"

    You can't deliberately keep the economy from getting better, then turn around and ask, "Why aren't things better?"

    I have a bridge to sell to any American who buys this song and dance.

  11. The reality is that we only have Harry Reid or Sharon Angle to vote for, and under these choices I think it's a no brainer: Harry Reid of course.
    I've lived in Las Vegas since 1989 and have seen Reid working for Nevada, yet all the research I've done on Angle only shows me she's closed minded and lives in her own world. She goes against the tide and other legislators say she's unsociable and doesn't associate with anyone. For a politician this is strange and she is very strange. Her ideas would put us back 30 years. She is inflexible.
    I would like church and state to be separate. Definitely, and see what these fake religious people that simply cater to the extreme right can do once in office, naming God all the time yet lying and invading countries for money, etc. We've all see how well rich pastors do too. I believe in job well done and this can be done without religion being involved. Just do your job and represent the people well. Period.
    I'm glad when Roe vs Wade came in for the simple reason that back room abortions should stop. I see no problem with gays being married and getting the same rights as everyone else. People's rights after all.
    I also believe that if we are all made in God's image, then we're all the same. Period.
    I can also remember when the "have's" were overjoyed by having immigrants work for them. No problem at all, welcome! I also remember when there were lots of jobs in Las Vegas, but those were better, kinder times.....
    So summing it all up, I don't like Sharon Angle, Sarah Palin, Christine O'Donnell, Glen Beck or any of their friends. I want to see experienced, honest, hardworking, middle of the road type people that don't need or act like they need medication to function, have axes to grind or expect to become rich while being a public servant. Don't care what your sex is, or your religion, or your color either. Just work hard, do a good job, be decent and follow the law. That's all that's needed.

  12. The only poll that counts is the one that announces its results on Nov 2nd.

    We The People will decide that one!

  13. Harry Reid's fault as perceived by the People is that Reid's family, with Harry as the Patriarch of that family, has created a family political dynasty of power brokers that include lobbyists and politicians. The people, me included, want to see that dynasty brought to an end . . . as I see nothing but corruption coming from such an arrangement.

  14. I'm just not buying into the recent poll numbers. In the past I've received the standard calls asking me my political opinion and I give it to them. And yes, I support Senator Reid over Ms. Angle and I give them my reasons. But lately the polling has been different. When I received calls asking my opinion and they start out by asking if I'll be voting for Ms. Angle and I say no, they hang up. I don't think this attitude makes for an accurate result.

    I still believe that Sen. Reid is working hard on behalf of the people of Nevada, but if he truly has lost the confidence of the people he represents then it may be time to step down or time to step up his game.

    I really don't want to see what Nevada would look like with Ms. Angle representing us in Washington. We get enough of the "Sin City" jokes already, I'm just not looking forward to what the country will think of our state of mind if she's elected. At least there's Christine O'Donnell to show that we're not the only state to have lost it's collective mind.

    People want things to get better. I get that. People think that for things to get better we need a change. I get that too. But just blindly voting in anger isn't the way to go.

    Things can get worse.