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. Reality99

    What a lame article. Instead of explaining why all the criticism of the polling process is wrong, the Gallup lapdog just repeats the same nonsense excuse over and over in hopes that gullible people will believe it. That's because he knows he CANNOT explain away the delusional idea that his biased process is not inaccurate.

    September 29, 2012 08:20 am at 8:20 am |
  2. Polls are trustworthy

    When a pollster asks who you will vote for, say "V. Supreme." Why tell the truth on polls, especially exit polls?

    Instead of minute-by-minute updates, let's wait until after election night.

    "Well, it appears to be a national joke going around tonight. Mr. V. Supreme has garnered an incredible number of votes according to exit polls. Even though he is registered and eligible in most of the states, surely Republicans and Democrats voted for their own political parties. We'll just have to wait until election returns are released before we know who actually won..."

    September 29, 2012 08:21 am at 8:21 am |
  3. skeeve

    Pollster do not assume any turnout at all; but then explaining statistics to people who are barely familiar with four basic operations is rather pointless, isn't it it. You don't like media polls, sure, ignore them, look at polling agencies, they do it for a living, and are not different withing margin of error from media polls. (You do know what margin of error is don't ya....)

    September 29, 2012 08:30 am at 8:30 am |
  4. GI Joe

    Uh – with 86% of Independents leaning toward President Obama, that 14% doesn't look so hot.

    September 29, 2012 08:31 am at 8:31 am |
  5. Casey Collins

    The GOP marching orders are out, and the campaign is now in their hands – first up, the polls are wrong and skewed to democratic majority of those interviewed. What's next? I cannot believe how many people in this country follow these people. Even my very own sister listens to this BS. The GOP is becoming exposed for their lies and people are disenchanted by their every breathe – FACT CHECK – Obama was handed a complete mess and it takes time to fix a lot of this stuff. I suffered personally without a job for the first time in my 33 years of working. Could not find one to save my life – six months of unemployment at a meager $240 a week am now with a job making 1/3rd of what I made. Guess what? I am still voting for Obama, because Romney frankly makes me nervous – big business wins with Romney, the rest of us will win or at least survive with President Obama.

    September 29, 2012 08:32 am at 8:32 am |
  6. Mary Lou

    Limbaugh and Fox News are part of the one percenters efforts to lie and deceive the American people. They lie about news, scientific facts and now polling. The bottom line is all pollsters have Romney down. The percentages are slightly different but the trend is clear, Obama has gained more support form Americans than Romney even if these right wing stooges say differently.

    September 29, 2012 08:34 am at 8:34 am |
  7. snowdogg

    more conspiracies?

    September 29, 2012 08:36 am at 8:36 am |
  8. max

    GOP is acting pathetically. They keep talking about Obama blaming Bush.. what about serial blaming of the media for left wing bias? Give it a rest and accept that tea bagger views are in the strong MINORITY.. that's why the media isn't saying what they want to hear. The GOP let sore losers take over their party.

    September 29, 2012 08:36 am at 8:36 am |
  9. James

    Most polls have been right in recent elections. I cannot believe any hews organization will skew polls on purpose. This will mean loss of credibility and viewership. That is why Fox News show Obama in the lead because Fox knows that in the end, they will lose credibility if they are far off the mark. I like to watch Fox News to get an opposite view but sometimes I have to shake my head at the extreme bias against the President and lack of respect for other people's opinion. I have to wonder, do these people really believe in what they are saying.

    September 29, 2012 08:37 am at 8:37 am |
  10. Tony

    Sounds like the GOP is already planting false evidence to support another stolen election. You can't steal an election if it's not close? It's becoming obvious they are going to try.

    September 29, 2012 08:39 am at 8:39 am |
  11. M

    Right Wing Nuts are the greatest threat to this great country – they are absolute traitors

    September 29, 2012 08:41 am at 8:41 am |
  12. Jk

    Sorry carol, polls, in last 2 days, like
    1. Rasmussen – more conservative than fox in polling results to date
    2. Fox – ALL agree that it tilts anti-Obama
    3. Gallup – respected by most, obviously not you, to be unbiased

    Show a consistent numerical lead by the President. You need to stop digging for excuses to whine about and start looking for reasons...who knows maybe one of those reasons may be able to be fixed and the polls will flip. But, everyone will tell you that the main reason is the candidate. Suggestion...start thinking 2016 and GOOD LUCK (not really)

    September 29, 2012 08:41 am at 8:41 am |
  13. livingston

    Fox news and their friends claim it's a conspiracy? Does anyone with an active brain cell take the seriously? All you have to do is consider the source.

    September 29, 2012 08:41 am at 8:41 am |
  14. us_1776

    .

    Voting for the GOP is like voting for the 14th century.

    .

    September 29, 2012 08:42 am at 8:42 am |
  15. Mike in Dallas

    I don't believe that carol understands the meaning of the word, empirical...

    September 29, 2012 08:45 am at 8:45 am |
  16. AmericanCitizenX

    @Carol. It is baffling that on one hand you criticize the public polling in favor of Obama and on the other hand you validate them when they show Romney winning the independent votes. Make up your mind whether to accept or reject the findings of public polling. But on the other hand you are just as confused and desperate as your candidate.

    September 29, 2012 08:47 am at 8:47 am |
  17. florida votes!

    Everyone loves to bash the current president. Ive watched it happen since I was a boy and Mr Carter was in officce. Thing is here is that the first 4 years of office usually reflect the previous presidents mistakes.Obama is doing his best to clean up the mess left for him and has done a relatively good job of it.Can any of you think of how our nation would be functioning if he hadnt made some of the decisions he has. Yes the bail outs are bordering on socialism BUT with billions of people in our country screaming for a rapid solution to those issues it was hard to devise any other short term fix for it. I f he hadnt done this as quickly milllons of jobs would have disapeared overnight. Its really scary to think what would have happened if that came to pass.

    September 29, 2012 08:49 am at 8:49 am |
  18. Rose lyczkowski

    Obama the apologist? The socialist? Some at Shore see president taking country to despair
    THE HOME NEWS TRIBUNE in NEW JERSEY, people in NJ see The truth about Obama. They do not like this Prez, his policies and actions or lack of actions!!!

    September 29, 2012 08:51 am at 8:51 am |
  19. PraiseTheLard

    The opinion polling bias is questionable, however the real-life voter suppression that's been heavily skewed towards the GOP has been going on for quite a number of election cycles.

    September 29, 2012 08:53 am at 8:53 am |
  20. PraiseTheLard

    True, however the real-life voter suppression that's been heavily skewed towards the Republicans has been going on for quite a number of election cycles.

    September 29, 2012 08:53 am at 8:53 am |
  21. Robert

    Of course the media is conspiring to elect Obama. The electorate could not possibly support such an incompetent dolt. Just look look at his record of failure in bringing the country out of the doldrums. He is a socialist piece of detritus whose policies are failures in every respect.

    September 29, 2012 08:54 am at 8:54 am |
  22. mj

    actually, it worries me when the Republicans start saying things like "we're gonna take Pennsylvania" and "I think the poll numbers lie." If anyone remembers those were exactly what Bush the W said before both of his elections and magically, he turned out to be correct. Of course now it appears he was correct because the elections were rigged and stolen.

    Beware Republicans talking victory in places where they seem to be losing.

    September 29, 2012 08:55 am at 8:55 am |
  23. NYVeteran

    Why doesnt CNN update the electoral map to reflect the latest polls? You have states in toss up that are well outside the margin of error for the polls. You are misrepresenting the current state of the electorate with that map while other websites are not.

    September 29, 2012 08:55 am at 8:55 am |
  24. Vatsi

    Why anyone would want to repeat the last 4 years just doesn't make sense. What possible arguement is there, other than some social arguement that things are better? Never before has there been worse leadership than we have now. That's SHOCKING, given the poor leadership qualities of our last president. One thing for certain, if he is re-elected, we will have 4 more years of the same as the last. Hopefully then someone with some ideas will run and win, otherwise, we are doomed.

    September 29, 2012 08:59 am at 8:59 am |
  25. tct

    A complete farce, participation rate refers to the poll, not voting.

    September 29, 2012 09:02 am at 9:02 am |
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