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FAQ: Table of Contents



Why are polls showing contradictory results?

In a sense, every post on this site seeks to answer the question of why polls seem contradictory. A good place to start is with the following three posts on the random variation inherent in all sample surveys and what a consumer can do to minimize it (each post has a link at the end connecting to the next post in the series):

Beyond that, much of the variation in political polls comes from the way the pollster defines a "likely voter.” These two questions on the FAQ list deal with two issues that explain much of the systematic variation between polls:

Finally, at the most basic level, political campaign polls typically seek to accomplish three tasks. Click on any of these links to display short excerpts of all of the posts in the category in reverse chronological order (most recent first):


What does the "margin of error" mean?

A good place to start is with the following three posts on the random variation inherent in all sample surveys and what a consumer can do to minimize it (each post has a link at the end connecting to the next post in the series):

Also, click on this link to display short excerpts of all of the posts concerning sampling error in reverse chronological order (most recent first).


How do pollsters select "likely voters?"

I have done a lot of posting on this topic. If you want a very thorough reading, start with Part I and continue through the series. You might also want to skip to Part VIII, which is something of a guide to the likely voter models used by all the major polling organizations:

Also,you can click on this link to display short excerpts of all of the posts concerning likely voters in reverse chronological order (most recent first).


Should pollsters weight by party identification?

The debate over whether pollsters should statistically adjust (or weight) their samples by party identification has been heated during campaign 2004. Here is a list of sequence of posts that covered this topic exhaustively:

It is worth noting that the debate about weighting by party is really a part of a larger debate also raging in 2004 about how pollsters define likely voters – click this link for more information.

Finally, click on this link to display short excerpts of all of the posts concerning weighting by party in reverse chronological order (most recent first).


Do undecided voters break for the challenger?

When pollsters interpret results for a race involving an incumbent, pollsters have typically applied the rule that incumbents rarely get a higher percentage in the election than they receive in polls, and that voters still undecided on the very last poll tend to "break" disproportionately for the challenger.

I wrote quite a bit on the incumbent rule before the 2004 election, but then the results at the presidential level defied the rule. I considered some of the reasons for what appears to be a recent weakening of the incumbent "rule" in this post in August, 2006.

These two posts from 2004 best explained the "incumbent rule:

Also, click on this link to display a listing of all posts concerning the incumbent rule on Pollster.com (in reverse chronological order - most recent first). This link display posts on the incumbent rule from the blog MysteryPollster.


Are polls missing people with mobile phones?

These two posts from 2004 address the issue of how households with cell phones but no "landline" service can affect telephone surveys:


Can polls tell who won a debate?

Start with these two posts on how instant polls and focus group aim to evaluate how candidates faired in a debate:

For more commentary, click on this link, or the link for the "debates" category, for a list of short excerpts of all of the posts on polls aimed at measuring reaction to the presidential debates. They will appear in reverse chronological order (most recent first).


Questions about Exit Polls

Since the election, I have written quite a bit on exit polls. Although I have learned a lot in that process, my Election Day summary of "what you need to know" about exit polls still holds up well and is a good place to start if you are new to this site.

Here is the complete list of questions:

You can also see a summary of all posts about exit polls (in reverse chronological order) by clicking this link.


Other questions

More frequently asked questions - click the link for answers:

More to come…