Mark Blumenthal | November 30, 2007
Topics: 2008 , Divergent Polls , Measurement , The 2008 Race
After we posted the results from the Clemson University Palmetto poll of South Carolina on Wednesday, a reader noticed the exceptionally high undecided percentage reported for Democrats (49%) and concluded that "something's wrong with these numbers" (the Republican sample also showed a higher than average 28% in the undecided column). Charles Franklin responded with a comment worth promoting:
Nothing's "wrong"-- the poll just let huge numbers of people say they hadn't made up their mind!
The release quotes the question wording as "If the 2008 presidential primary in South Carolina were held today, for whom would you vote?"
There is no indication whether the question LISTED the candidate choices or forced respondents to think of names on their own. That would make a difference. Further there was apparently no follow up to get "leaners" accounted for.
This is a good example of the kind of academic poll (commercial pollsters seem to NEVER do this) that deliberately chooses to allow respondents to remain"undecided". The academics who do this seem to believe that this is more revealing of how unsettled the preferences are and is therefore a more realistic view of how malleable opinion is. I see their point, but it makes the poll virtually unusable because it is so far out of line with more conventional polls that push for a direction of preference.
Given how volatile preferences can be once the voting actually begins, the academics may have a good point, but the 50% undecided isn't very helpful for knowing how opinion is forming.
Today, of course, we have new set of South Carolina surveys from the American Research Group which shows only 11% in the undecided category among Democrats (10%) among Republicans. This survey shows Hillary Clinton with a 24-point lead (45% to 21%), while the Palmetto poll showed things much closer between the top candidates (Clinton 19%, Obama 17%).
Now, sampling "likely voters" in the low turnout South Carolina primary is nearly as challenging as in Iowa, and there are many potential explanations for this difference beyond the likelihood that the Palmetto poll prompted for undecided while the ARG surveys do not. However, even if we take both sets of numbers at face value, they may be telling us that the Clinton lead in that state is soft; that voters there who currently prefer Senator Clinton (when pushed) are softer in their support than those leaning to Obama or the other candidates.