Fight over ‘bias’ in political polling as numbers show clear edge for Obama

Most polls give President Obama the lead over Mitt Romney – some by a margin many find startling. Conservatives say that just proves the polls are rigged to give Democrats the advantage.

Matthew Putney/The Waterloo Courier/AP
Reshonda Young fills out paperwork to vote early at the election office at the Black Hawk County Courthouse in Waterloo, Iowa,Thursday. Iowa is one of 32 states that allow early voting.

As Mitt Romney and Barack Obama prepare to go mano a mano (rhetorically, at least) in their first debate this week, the fight over skewed polling continues to echo among partisans and pundits.

Most polls give Mr. Obama the lead – some by a margin many find startling. The latest Rand Corp. snapshot has Obama up by 7 points, Gallup’s by 6 points. The RealClearPolitics average of polls gives Obama a 4.3 percent edge over M. Romney.

But some conservative commentators say that just proves the polls are rigged to give Democrats an apparent advantage. And the mainstream media, they charge, is buying into what amounts to a conspiracy by playing up such survey results.

Why do Election 2012 swing states matter? 5 resources to explain.

“A tight presidential contest is fueling a fierce debate over whether the daily stream of polls accurately reflects the dynamics of the presidential race,” blogs Neil King Jr. for the Wall Street Journal.

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner (who calls himself a “recovering pollster”) points out the increasing difficulty in accurately gauging that dynamic.

There’s always a margin of error of 3-4 points, he notes, and the results in one out of 20 polls will be wrong outside the margin of error.

Then there’s the difficulty in getting potential voters to agree to be interviewed by phone (polls used to be conducted face-to-face), especially since many people now use cell phones only. Federal law requires cell phones to be hand-dialed rather than dialed by computers as land lines are.

“In addition, it's getting much harder for pollsters to get people to respond to interviews,” Mr. Barone writes. “The Pew Research Center reports that it's getting only 9 percent of the people it contacts to respond to its questions. That's compared with 36 percent in 1997.”

“Are those 9 percent representative of the larger population?” Barone asks. “As that percentage declines, it seems increasingly possible that the sample is unrepresentative of the much larger voting public. One thing a poll can't tell us is the opinion of people who refuse to be polled.”

The conservative complaint is that Democrats are being over-sampled in polls. Pollsters say their random sampling of voters surveyed just reflects the way people identify themselves politically (which is not necessarily the same as how they're registered) – 35 percent Democrats, 28 percent Republicans, and 33 percent Independents.

Nate Silver, who pores through political statistics for his FiveThirtyEight blog at the New York Times, finds that polls have no history of being purposely skewed toward one party or the other.

“The polls have no such history of partisan bias, at least not on a consistent basis,” he wrote Saturday. “There have been years, like 1980 and 1994, when the polls did underestimate the standing of Republicans. But there have been others, like 2000 and 2006, when they underestimated the standing of Democrats.”

“On the whole, it is reasonably impressive how unbiased the polls have been,” Mr. Silver writes. “In both presidential and Senate races, the bias has been less than a full percentage point over the long run, and it has run in opposite directions.”

It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. An analysis by the Associated Press “based on a review of public and private polls, television advertising and numerous interviews with campaign and party officials as well as Republican and Democratic strategists in the competitive states and in Washington” shows that Obama would win at least 271 electoral votes if the election were held today, with likely victories in crucial Ohio and Iowa along with 19 other states and the District of Columbia. Romney would win 23 states for a total of 206.

“To oust the Democratic incumbent, Romney would need to take up-for-grabs Florida, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Virginia, which would put him at 267 votes, and upend Obama in either Ohio or Iowa,” the AP reported Sunday.

Still, Silver, Barone, and other experts caution against making too big a deal out of political polls. And yet both campaigns watch them like hawks, and they have their own polling operations as well.

Why do Election 2012 swing states matter? 5 resources to explain.

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