Polling Shenanigans

Mainstream pollsters predict greater Democratic turnout than the historic 2008 election.

Mitt Romney is down in the polls. Mitt Romney’s supporters are down on the polls.

Rush Limbaugh dubbed two outlier polls favorable to the president as “bogus” and “irresponsible.” Dick Morris regards this year’s surveys as “unusually inaccurate.” He explains, “Most pollsters are weighting their data on the assumption that the 2012 electorate will turn out in the same proportion as the 2008 voters did. But polling indicates a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the president among his core constituency.” Breitbart.com’s John Nolte points out that in Florida, where Democrats enjoyed a 3-point advantage four years ago, CBS News/New York Times/Quinnipiac envisions Democrats reaping a 9-point advantage on Election Day. In the rustbelt states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, the CBS News/New York Times/Quinnipiac survey also expects Democrats to vote in heavier numbers than they did in 2008. Nolte explains that “polls are not only telling us that Romney is losing OH, PA, and FL by insurmountable margins; these polls are also telling us that Democrat turnout is projected to blow away every modern record.”

Consider the contrast. In Ohio, Romney either trails by 1 point (Rasmussen Reports) or by 10 (CBS News/New York Times/Quinnipiac). In Iowa, the president leads by 8 (NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist) and trails by 3 (Rasmussen Reports). In Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia Inquirer count put Obama 11 ahead; the Pittsburgh Tribune Review placed Romney two behind. To borrow industry jargon, the polls are not within the margin of error.

Susquehanna Polling & Research, which conducted the much-maligned Pittsburgh Tribune Review poll showing the Keystone State a neck-and-neck race, defended their methodology by noting the 6-point advantage it awarded Democrats within their current Pennsylvania poll, which is down just 1 point from the Democrats’ Election Day take in 2008. The polling group suggests that “perhaps the Phil Inquirer poll showing Obama winning by a bigger margin than he won by four years ago is the real outlier.”

The 2008 election was historic. Media outlets reminded us of this repeatedly in the months following it. Four years later, the 2008 election is no longer considered historic by many pollsters but the new normal. The record turnout of African Americans, the record Obama-McCain vote disparity among young people, and the unusually defeatist mood of Republicans made Election Day 2008 a once-in-a-lifetime event. By definition, a once-in-a-lifetime event doesn’t recur every presidential election. But several polls, NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist, Pew, and CBS News/New York Times/Quinnipiac being the most prominent, anticipate Democrat enthusiasm to top 2008.

Signs abound that this may be wishful polling. Barack Obama, who filled a football stadium of feverish fans in Denver four years ago, abruptly moved his 2012 convention coronation from the outdoor Bank of America Stadium (capacity: 74,000) to the indoor Time Warner Cable Arena (capacity 18,500). The Obama campaign garnered $37 million in merchandise sales in 2008. According to USA Today, the campaign has ordered just $6.7 million worth of trinkets this time around. Celebrities, who in 2008 acted around Obama the way their fans act around them, no longer seem so star-struck. Singer Dave Matthews remarked that he would cast a “disappointed” and “slightly heartbroken” ballot for Obama, while actor Matt Damon said of the president: “I think he misinterpreted his mandate.”

They’ve lost that loving feeling. But it remains for several pollsters. Their models anticipate a more energized Democratic base than 2008. Or, as cynics believe, their models energize the Democratic base and suppress the Republican base.

Polls tell us as much about the pollster as about the polled. The objectivity of the results ultimately depends upon the objectivity, and discernment, of the pollster. Nobody knows which ones are wrong, but when competing polls show a ten-point spread between the candidates everyone can agree that somebody is wrong.

On the flipside, the reaction to polls also tells us as much about the responder as the poll. While the internals of several polls reveal bias toward the Democrats, the direction of nearly all national polls heads in the same direction: the president’s. Shooting the messenger only obscures Republican problems in effectively conveying their message. Stopping Obama’s Big Mo, rather than exposing Pew’s skew, should be the pressing concern for Republicans.

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