The Pitfalls of Early Polling
Robert Prather has a lengthy excerpt from a subscribers-only article in WSJ that, in a nutshell, says not to pay much attention to presidential approval ratings at this point in the cycle.
Not only are approval ratings not very helpful, neither is a candidate’s standing in opinion polls that ask people for whom they plan to vote. In 1968 Hubert Humphrey led Richard Nixon until July; in 1980 Mr. Carter led Mr. Reagan until June and then again from August through most of October; in 1988, Michael Dukakis led the elder Bush until August; in 1992 the elder Bush led Mr. Clinton into June. All of these “leaders” lost.
Both Robert and the author of the piece he excerpts argue that the main reason for this is that most people just aren’t focused on the election this early. And that’s certainly true. That’s the explanation I’ve always given for this phenomenon.
I was listening to a pollster –I think John Zogby, but maybe not– on a radio talk show recently and he had a different explanation, though: The polls are indeed accurate snapshots of public sentiment at the moment but the candidate that’s trailing in the polls adjusts his campaign on the basis of his polling to more effectively target his message. He used the analogy of going on a diet, arguing that, if it’s February and your goal is to lose 50 pounds by November, you might want to step on a scale periodically to track your progress. That seems plausible as well.
A third explanation is that all the cases above are the exciting outlyers that we remember–elections where there was a late surge by a candidate. Presumably, the early polls were accurate in 1964, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1996, and 2000 or they’d have been mentioned, too.