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.