Analysis: Polling criticism unfounded
September 28th, 2012
05:32 PM ET
2 years ago

Analysis: Polling criticism unfounded

Washington (CNN) – It's a conspiracy theory of the highest level: media organizations allegedly manipulating data in public opinion polls to try and help President Barack Obama win a second term. Democracy crushed.

The accusations are predicated on the idea that some media organizations are interviewing too many Democrats in their surveys, which skew the results in way to benefit Obama over Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

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Tune into conservative talk radio or search the Internet and there's a good chance you will see or hear the charges. Even from Romney surrogates.

"So there's a number of things going on with the polls, folks," Rush Limbaugh said Thursday on his radio program. "Let's review just quickly some things said yesterday. One of the reasons that you tout a big lead, at the same time early voting begins, is to suppress Romney early voters. Who wants to vote for a loser? Oh, gosh, here we go again. We really don't have a chance. They know that so many people on our side, all you gotta do is listen to the average conservative pundit and realize that they're mired in negativity and pessimism. So you build it up, put out a poll that shows a massive Obama lead and early voting goes on, and so you stoke Obama voters, you depress Romney voters."

A question you might ask yourself: Would Limbaugh be attacking these media polls if the results showed Romney leading?

Republican strategist Karl Rove stoked the same conspiracy flames earlier this week on Fox News.

"You've got to be careful about these polls," Rove said. "We endow them with a false scientific precision they simply don't have."

The criticism has ramped up over the past two weeks after a series of polls in key battleground states showed the president gaining an advantage over Romney. Heading into the homestretch of the long campaign, the results are a troubling development that Romney's top aides are being forced to address. And part of the strategy is criticizing the polling results.

"They have a Democratic voter participation that is higher than the participation in the electorate in 2008," Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney adviser said on Fox News this week. "I don't know anyone on the ground in any of these swing states who believes that there will be a higher Democratic percentage of the electorate in 2012 than there was in 2008."

And Romney surrogate Bay Buchanan, without an understanding of the facts, charged that CNN "deliberately" over-polled Democrats in a recent survey.

"There's a CNN poll last week," she said in an appearance on CNN. "We won in the poll the independents by 14 percent and we won Republicans by 98 percent. And somehow the CNN poll had us losing by six. Now, you and I both know if we win 14 percent of independents we're going to have a mighty good day. So what is that about?"

A top Romney campaign strategist said it uses its own internal polling when making decisions.

"The public polls are what the public polls are," Rich Beeson, Romney's political director, told reporters earlier this week. "I kind of hope the Obama campaign is basing their campaign on what the public polls say. We don't. We have confidence in our data and our metrics. I feel confident where we are in each one of our states. I have great faith in our data."

Steve Doocy of Fox News has expressed skepticism about polling results for this election.

"Could there possibly be some skewing going on by the media, the left-based mainstream media?" Doocy said.

Doocy's own network, though, has published polls that were very much in line with the topline results from other media surveys.

A Fox News poll of Virginia voters indicated Obama had a seven point (49%-42%) advantage over Romney. A Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times survey in Virginia showed Obama up only four-points (50%-46%) over Romney, while a Washington Post poll had Obama with an eight point (52%-44%) lead over Romney in the Commonwealth.

In Ohio, a Fox News poll said Obama had a seven point (49%-42%) advantage over Romney, while an Ohio survey by The Washington Post put Obama up eight points (52%-44%) over Romney and a Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll showed the president with a 10 point (53%-43%) lead over Romney.

A Fox News Poll of Florida voters showed Obama with a five point (49%-44%) lead over Romney, while The Washington Post survey of Floridians said Obama was up four points (51%-47%) on Romney and a Quinnipiac/CBS News/New York Times Florida poll indicated that Obama had a nine point (53%-44%) lead on Romney.

Hardly a concerted effort to skew poll results in favor of Obama - unless you agree that Fox News is part of the conspiracy.
Yet, not all conservatives are accusing the media of manipulating the data.

"I do not believe the polls are all wrong," Erick Erickson, editor of the influential conservative web site RedState.com, wrote on Wednesday. "I do not believe there is some intentional, orchestrated campaign to suppress the GOP vote by showing Mitt Romney losing. I actually believe that Mitt Romney trails Barack Obama.

"But I also believe the polls are reflecting a bigger Democratic strength than is really there," added Erickson, who is also a political contributor on CNN.

Criticizing public polling is hardly a new phenomenon. In fact, it's a regular campaign tactic.

What is new in this election cycle is that several polling organizations have started releasing their party identification numbers. And critics are seizing upon this information to formulate a flawed argument attacking the results, comparing party identification from these telephone polls to previous exit polls. It's not a valid comparison.

Interviews conducted by telephone prior to an election are much different than talking to a person who has just voted for a candidate. In a telephone interview several months or several weeks before an election, a person might provide a different answer than the one they give after emerging from a voting booth.

People's minds can change … which is exactly why there is such an effort by the campaigns to convince the undecided and soft-leaning voters to support their candidate.

Keep in mind, party identification is not a characteristic that is set in stone such as someone's race or sex. It can evolve over time and change much like education and income levels. A study conducted a few years ago interviewed the same people six different times during a presidential election and it found that 25 percent of the participants changed their answer on party identification at least three times during the course of the study.

Republicans made similar arguments in 2008 when they compared polls taken in that cycle to the 2004 exit polls. And Democrats also voiced the same argument in 2004 by comparing surveys in that election cycle to the exit polls from the 2000 election. In 2008, Democrats won the White House and only four years earlier President George W. Bush won a second term.

Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup, addresses the party identification argument in a September 27, 2012 column. If you are interested in this argument, we think it is worth a read. As is this September 19, 2012 column by Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post.


Filed under: 2012
soundoff (270 Responses)
  1. Jim

    Race is not something "set in stone," but rather is a societal construct. Otherwise, a fine article.

    September 29, 2012 05:37 am at 5:37 am |
  2. TommytheT

    so let me understand and try to bring a little logic to this. Mr Obama and unknown with no record but a lot of well spoken promises beat Mr McCain by about 6% with a very large and very excited turn out of his base. Fast forward 4 years and Mr Obama with a very weak economy, a foreign policy that appears to be failing, massive debt, the young, black and Hispanic base woefully struggling to find employment and no longer able to just get by on promises is running against Mr Romney, let's be honest a stronger candidate than Mr McCain. I do not believe the Obama base turn out will as large and what do the polls say? Mr Obama will win by a large % than before? Yea I'm going to go with the something does not add up in this reporting and wait until Nov to participate in the true poll

    September 29, 2012 05:52 am at 5:52 am |
  3. cajunripper

    These are the same polls that last time said it would be a close race. I worked for a poll company and they had to keep fireing people that were answering the forms on their own and turining them in. Polls are a joke.

    September 29, 2012 06:07 am at 6:07 am |
  4. Anonymous

    The more people see of Mitt Romney, the less they like him. It's that simple. Bring on the debates.

    September 29, 2012 06:16 am at 6:16 am |
  5. Jim

    1st, inferring that O'reilly, Rove, Doocy or any of the people you mentioned is connected to Fox "News" is inaccurate. There are political programs on Fox News Channel. Surprise, surprise! News on Fox News runs most of the day with commentary programs mostly in prime-time. You quote the commentary people like they're anchors at Fox News and it's just not so. At 7:00EST, Shepard Smith is an example of Fox News "News". He is hardly a right-wing pundit. But, even with the right-leaning commentary programs, you'll get the left-leaning viewpoint as well. That's what you don't see on MSNBC or most of the networks. You'll hear the anchors viewpoint and maybe 2-3 other lap-dogs mouthing approval on the other networks. All or mostly one-sided.

    September 29, 2012 06:23 am at 6:23 am |
  6. Informed reader

    Carol, My guess is that you are not familiar with survey research. The polls are not assuming anything about voter turnout. Their percentages have nothing to do with turnout. They are presenting information about people's current opinions, what they are saying at the time they are interviewed. The story clearly notes that what people do on election day can be different than what they say they will do today. Weighting the data based on a characteristic so strongly related to the outcome you are measuring, which is what you are saying they should do, is the surest way to bias your results.

    September 29, 2012 06:45 am at 6:45 am |
  7. We Woke Up

    Well Scooby – – since you are busying yourself with your blinders on...the rest of America has awoke from the freaking Obama nightmare. We're not stupid. A few hundred media pundits can try to tout polling BS and not report on anything that may make King O and Queen C look bad and think America does not see right through their BS. I am sure you are absolutely convinced that Obama is leading by about 10-15% in the nation and has already won. Of course, that gives him a turn out far superior to 2008. I am sure it is true! So…give yourself a break. Stay at home on voting day since your King has already one.

    September 29, 2012 06:55 am at 6:55 am |
  8. David

    A very weak article. The headline says ANALYSIS yet there is no mention of oversampling in the small number of polls mentioned. Brietbart is the only news site that frequently mentions the +/- sampling. Try harder next time CNN.

    September 29, 2012 07:00 am at 7:00 am |
  9. Charlie in Maine

    To be fair, The GOP has a disturbing message delivered by a deeply flawed and mean spiritedn candidate. I am still surprised that it is this close. BTW CBB how much does Obama have to lead by before Ohio turns from yellow to blue. I think the main streem media is not biased towards either candidate but it is biased towards reporting a "tight race".

    September 29, 2012 07:05 am at 7:05 am |
  10. Anonymous

    Some people don't believe in polls; and some don't believe in Science at all. Study shows most of these people are conservatives.

    September 29, 2012 07:18 am at 7:18 am |
  11. Soul

    Some people don't believe in polls; and some don't believe in Science at all. Study shows most of these people are conservatives.

    September 29, 2012 07:19 am at 7:19 am |
  12. Katie

    What's new about the GOP? They've been spinning that same tired old "liberal media" nonsense for decades. The sad truth is, while there is a lot of bias out there these days, lots of people don't distinguish actual news from stuff they want to hear. If they agree with whatever is being said, no matter who says and how outrageous it is, that's their reality. This goes for both sides of the aisle and both extremes of the parties. Also, it's true that there is very little 'news' – most of it is opinion or early speculation on the thinnest bit of information.

    September 29, 2012 07:32 am at 7:32 am |
  13. Rhonda Rahn

    I don't have an Obama sticker on my car like I did in 2008 but guess what...I am voting OBAMA 2012.

    So, the argument that "you don't see Obama stickers everywhere like you do in 2008" doesn't fly.

    GOP = anti-women, anti-elderly people, anti-gay, anti-Hispanic....they are running out of their base of old angry white men. Demographics are changing and the GOP refuses to face reality....for just about everything, including the polls.

    September 29, 2012 07:36 am at 7:36 am |
  14. FloydZepp

    Carol, desperate dreaming and irrational nonsequitur comparisons won't change the cold hard truth – Romney openly said he hates half of Americans – that's why he's not going to be elected.

    September 29, 2012 07:45 am at 7:45 am |
  15. Ragin' Cajun

    All this contrived hooplah about a deliberate skewing of pollster preference while they're practically BUYING votes with voter suppression, not to mention that "little thing" called voter application falsification. The beany hasn't been on straight since they started this campaign. What a bunch of losers!

    September 29, 2012 07:48 am at 7:48 am |
  16. snowdogg

    "It's a conspiracy theory of the highest level"

    Only postulated by Fox News and believed by Fox News heads

    September 29, 2012 07:51 am at 7:51 am |
  17. John

    The bottom line is that polling outlets are sampling more democrates than republicans in each of these polls.by almost 10%. If they were to ask across the board evenly, Romney would be either tied or ahead.

    September 29, 2012 07:53 am at 7:53 am |
  18. deanpatson22

    Rush is only supporting Mitt because he is the last resort. He was singing a different tune during the Republican primaries!

    September 29, 2012 08:01 am at 8:01 am |
  19. macbil

    And of course, if the polls showed Romney was ahead then the Republicans would be saying that the polls are right. What hypocrites. And I love the fact that they ignore was their great "source of all that is true" in the world, aka FOX News. The latest national poll shows Obama up by five points.

    September 29, 2012 08:01 am at 8:01 am |
  20. bspurloc

    foxfax hath no bounds....

    after Obama wins foxfax and the gop will be intensifying their lies to "STOP OBAMA from getting a 3rd term"

    September 29, 2012 08:02 am at 8:02 am |
  21. DoseOfReality

    Scientifically, most polls from major news outlets are useless. They mostly serve as entertainment. If you don't believe me, just go look at the WI governor polls for the recall election that showed a "tight" race. Of course, Walker won handily.

    September 29, 2012 08:10 am at 8:10 am |
  22. DoseOfReality

    Furthermore, your "analysis" is even less credible and scientifically defensible than your polling. But, I appreciate the good laugh!

    September 29, 2012 08:13 am at 8:13 am |
  23. KlintzCNN

    Show the infallibility of polls:

    When asked who you're voting for, say "V. Supreme." Why tell the truth on polls, especially exit polls?

    How would that be handled on election night?

    "Well, folks, it appears that Mr. V. Supreme has garnered an unbelievable number of support tonight in exit polls. This is a joke. Even though Mr. Supreme is registered and eligible in most of the states, surely Republicans and Democrats are not voting for him. I guess we'll just have to wait until the election returns are released before we know where everything truly stands..."

    September 29, 2012 08:15 am at 8:15 am |
  24. JL

    That's right republicans it's the poll or maybe it's the lamestream media!

    It's definitely not your tired old message (tax cuts) or your inapt candidate (Mittens)

    September 29, 2012 08:17 am at 8:17 am |
  25. TXJew

    Carol – so well reasoned, what are you going to do when Obama carries Ohio and all the other swing states where he is trending well in those awful polls? Stop navel gazing and read something outside of the Conservative bubble. There's a [real] world out there.

    September 29, 2012 08:18 am at 8:18 am |
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