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Election wild card: first-time voters

Obama and McCain have traded leads in the polls. But whose supporters will turn out in November?

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Mr. Greenberg is not alone among pollsters, who are constantly assessing and upgrading the models they use to predict outcomes. Some of the other variables they now have to consider are early voting, which is allowed in 23 states, and same-day registration in a handful of states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire. Each variable has the potential to throw off the sample of registered and likely voters.

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“History becomes less of a guide here ... so we are asking about early voting and first-time voting and tracking that to see if it helps us,” says pollster John Zogby of Zogby International.

Voter registration lists

Some state-level surveys and partisan polls – those done for candidates and their parties – don’t use random phone samples. Instead, they rely on voter registration lists. The method is not considered as reliable because those lists can be out of date. One pollster, who didn’t want his name used so as not to offend colleagues, called the method “on the cheap,” and thus most major pollsters don’t use it. But some pollsters still do.

“If your sample is a year old in Pennsylvania, you’re going to miss a huge amount of movement because of the dramatic, dramatic change in registration in Pennsylvania [before the primary],” says Margie Omero, president of Momentum Analysis, a Democratic polling firm in Washington. “When you compare state-to-state surveys, which is how people come up with what the model will be for electoral votes, that’s something to keep in mind.”

How the issue of race factors into polls can also affect their accuracy. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly in the South, many African-American candidates would find themselves ahead in the polls when voters were asked about their preferences prior to the election. Then they’d lose, when voters expressed their true preference in the polling booth. But that phenomenon – of people being afraid to tell pollsters what they really think when it comes to race – no longer appears to be a significant factor. Indeed, during the primaries, Senator Obama actually did better during some primaries and caucuses than he did in the polls.

One reason for that is that pollsters have come up with elaborate sets of questions to identify voters’ true preferences. But race can still present some problems for pollsters, particularly when those who refuse to participate are taken into account.

“The larger issue is the refusals – whether the people we don’t get are more racially intolerant than the people we do get,” says Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. “That’s a problem child for us.”