Poll WarsOctober 17, 2008
I haven’t commented much on the polls here in the Chamber as we march toward election day, mostly because I’ve seen the practice of touting Obama’s lead as something I might regret. In other words, whatever the polls might say, I still think that this election is going to be very close.
I only bring it up now because I’ve noticed a couple of things on the web that reminded me of an old debate on whether these presidential opinion polls are less an attempt to gauge public opinion, and more of an attempt to influence it. One such sighting came the other day, when Tex brought to my attention an interesting yet poorly-sourced and flawed essay by the enigmatic Zombie, in which he/she accuses Obama supporters of “stuffing” the post-debate polls in an effort to make the idea that Obama won the debates an accepted “fact”. Like I said, an interesting theory, but unfortunately Zombie didn’t provide much of anything to back up the assertion, so I let him/her know. (I had always assumed that the reputable and referenced post-debate polls weren’t internet-based anyway, although I always wonder how they determine who the “undecided” voters are)
The other sighting happened when I visited Drudge Report, and I obviously couldn’t miss this:
Drudge is right about one thing, in that a dramatic swing like that certainly would be considered a shock. So, I decided to investigate a little on my own, and turned to fivethirtyeight.com (since they watch this stuff daily), and I came across this analysis:
Let me be clear: I don’t blame Drudge for trying to drive the narrative. Unlike certain other folks, it’s not as though he’s made any claim to being objective. With real news — which polls aren’t — he generally has excellent and entertaining instincts.
I do, however, blame those of who allow yourselves to have your day ruined when Drudge moonlights as some kind of polling analyst.
A fairer way to analyze tracking polls, in any event, is something like this: McCain gained ground in three of the seven trackers today (Gallup, Rasmussen, Battleground). He lost ground in one (Zogby). Three others (Research 2000, Hotline, IBD/TIPP) were unchanged.
So, what is Drudge doing here? Is he cherry-picking the most McCain-favorable poll he could find in an effort to influence opinion? After all, much has been said about Drudge’s uncanny ability to drive the national conversation. Is he trying to exploit a variation of the principle of social proof and frame the narrative that McCain is making some sort of spectacular comeback?
My guess would be, yes. Especially since he went for it again today. This one appeared to be picked up by Lou Dobbs, as he repeated the Drudge headline almost verbatim on his show this evening.
Of course, the only poll that really matters is the one taken on November 4th, but I think that a debate on how much the polls taken leading up to the big day influence the outcome is worth having. Do the candidates alter their tactics based on the polls? You bet. Do those tactics then play a role in winning and losing? Of course they do. If the shift of tactics is transparent, and the voter assumes that the change is based solely on the polls, does it (the tactic) lose some of its effectiveness (i.e. “McCain’s just going negative because he’s behind in the polls”)? Sure. In fact, it would be interesting to get an idea what the change in the electoral dynamic would be if the poll results were kept privately within the campaigns, or if they did away with polling altogether. Of course that would never happen, but when you think about it that way, one revisits the reasons why they are everywhere.
Wait a second. Why are they everywhere, anyway?