THOSE LYIN’ POLLS

Kevin Drum points to a new Rasmussen national tracking poll and an ARG New Hampshire tracking poll showing how far Dean has fallen since Iowa. He’s now third in both polls (albeit with a ridiculous margin of error for the 1-day tracking in New Hampshire).

It’s pretty obvious that there’s an awful lot of shallow support out there. *** I’m not sure how the campaign polling operations work, but results like this make me wonder why tracking polls don’t try to measure depth of support a little better. If Rasmussen had asked voters early this week how strong their support of Dean/Kerry/etc. was (say, on a scale of 1-10), I wonder if we wouldn’t have been a little more prepared for this?

The problem with doing more in-depth polling is, as I understand it, two-fold. First, it’s a lot more expensive. Second, the more demanding of people’s time a poll is, the less willing people will be to participate. The higher the non-response rate, the more self-selected and thus unrepresentative the sample is.

For polls taken very early in the process, where even political junkies like Michael Totten and Andrew Sullivan are still mulling their choices, it’s just not worth the expense to do more rigorous polls for public consumption. Really, they’re mainly for entertainment value at this stage of the game.

Even the most rigorous polls are much better at assessing attitude than they are at predicting behavior. This is especially true in primaries and caucuses, where turnout tends to be incredibly low, with only the most motivated actually showing up. Indeed, this is why so many of us got Iowa wrong this year: We dismissed the trends shown in the polls in the week prior to the caucuses because, historically, candidates with “organization”–the ability to actually get people on buses and get them to the event–had a tremendous advantage. Dean and Gephardt were thought to have enough organization to overcome their plunging support in the polls; it turned out not to be the case.

Humphrey Taylor paraphrases Winston Churchill, “Polls are the worst way of measuring public opinion and public behavior, or of predicting elections–except for all of the others.” Of course, he also says, “The possible margin of error is infinite.” Take your pick.

Update (1932): Taegan Goddard has a helpful Q&A on tracking polls. Hat tip: Steven Taylor

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. richard says:

    been waitin fur somone to notice that

  2. bryan says:

    Also, measuring “depth” is incredibly tricky. What is “depth of support” anyway? What one subject thinks is “very supportive” would be “supportive” to another. There’s no real way to measure the difference between the values.

  3. Well, the margin of error isn’t infinite… just +/- 50% 😉

    But, considering that practically everyone in New Hampshire has probably been polled at least once by now, I’d imagine we’re approaching the point where the polling is close to garbage.

  4. McGehee says:

    Q.: How strongly committed to this candidate are you?

    • I would commit mass murder and ritual suicide to get him/her/it/them elected.
    • I would commit mass murder, but not ritual suicide.
    • I would commit ritual suicide, but not mass murder.
    • I would kick a puppy in public to get him/her/it/them elected.
    • I might be willing to kick a puppy in private.
    • I would pretend to kick a puppy, but only if it was a stuffed puppy I won at a carnival.
    • I only told you I supported this candidate because I wanted to get rid of you — I don’t even live in the state, I’m here on business and am staying in a hotel.
    • No hablo ingles.