Presidential Polls 2012: Political Polls Can Determine if Romney or Obama Wins the Election


The editors at PolicyMic asked if I’d attempt to explain why polls are actually important to millennials. As such here are a few reasons why millennial’s in particular should participate in political polls. I promise to keep this on a “common sense” level of discourse avoiding the nuances of polling such as gamma distribution.

Conversely, if you want to read the insights on the details of how Gallup continues to evolve its polling methodology, I strongly encourage you to read Frank Newport’s October 10 essay, “Polling Matters.

In any given poll, the actual number of respondents can be as much as 300,000 to 1, with regard to the total population the survey is attempting to predict data on. As Newport noted, even Gallup’s daily tracking poll is based on only 500 randomly sampled individuals.

So, if yesterday 167 randomly sampled Americans intended to vote for President Obama and 163 intended to vote for Governor Romney, 20 undecided were, and 150 admitted they were not going to vote, each of those respondents represents basically 300,000 of the 100 million Americans expected to cast a ballot in the upcoming election.

If you had decided not to participate yesterday and the next person on the call list had the opposite political position of support from yours, the daily tracking poll would have swung be 6/10’s of 1%.

Now before anyone gets too cynical over attempting to predict a national election solely on the responses of 500 to 3,250 participants, keep in mind that members of the American Association for Public do weight the averages of participant responses – by shifting responses into the respective demographics — attempting to ensure the most accurate forecast possible.

All else being equal, polling organizations such as Gallup or WSJ/NBC polls and other national media outlets that have staff that belong to The American Association for Public Opinion Research (A.A.P.O.R.), or that have committed to the disclosure and transparency standards advanced by the National Council on Public Polls, have consistently been found to produce poll results which compare favorably to voter totals.

After the weighted polling average is calculated, it is subject to three additional types of adjustments.

1. The trend line adjustment. An estimate of the overall momentum in the national political environment is determined based on a detailed evaluation of trends within generic congressional ballot polling. In practice, the trend line adjustment is designed to be fairly gentle, and so it has relatively little effect unless there has been an especially sharp change in the national environment such as after a presidential or VP debate.

2. The house effects adjustment. Sometimes, polls from a particular polling firm tend consistently to be more favorable toward one or the other political party. Polls from the firm Rasmussen Reports, for example, have shown results that are about 2 points more favorable to the Republican candidate than average during this election cycle. It is not necessarily correct to equate a house effect with “bias” – there have been certain past elections in which pollsters with large house effects proved to be more accurate than pollsters without them – and systematic differences in polling may result from a whole host of methodological factors unrelated to political bias.

3. The likely voter adjustment. Throughout the course of an election year, polls may be conducted among a variety of population samples. Some survey all American adults, some survey only registered voters, and others are based on responses from respondents deemed to be “likely voters,” as determined based on past voting behavior or present voting intentions.

Sometimes, there are predictable differences between likely voter and registered voter polls. In 2010, for instance, polls of likely voters were about 4 points more favorable to the Republican candidate, on average, than those of registered voters, perhaps reflecting enthusiasm among Republican voters. The wave elections of 2006 and 2008 both represented more likely turnout among Democrats, a prediction which held true come the election.

Therefore, polls of registered voters (or adults) are adjusted to be equivalent to likely voter polls; the magnitude of the adjustment is based on a regression analysis of the differences between registered voter polls and likely voter polls throughout the polling database, holding other factors like the identity of the pollster constant.

All of which brings us back to why your response to political polling is important. Your participation in political polling can encourage fellow voters that the candidate you are supporting can win the election. America loves to be on the winning side of everything, from sports to politics. For all the polls flaws, close elections have consistently caused large voter turnout.

Next time you receive a call to participate in a political poll, consider taking a couple minutes to express your opinion.

Who knows, you might just be helping change the course of the election and making history in the process.