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Gallup Daily - The Worst Thing in 10 Years?


In Mark Blumenthal's post on how David Plouffe is polling for Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee's communications director Dan Pfeiffer is quoted as saying that "the Gallup Daily is the worst thing that's happened to journalism in 10 years." Gallup's Frank Newport predictably rejected the comments, claiming that Pfeiffer's comments "are the same types of sentiments that have been expressed since George Gallup's first presidential polls in 1936."

 

I don't think Frank is correct in his boiler plate response. It is not useful to dismiss all criticisms of polls these days as the same old tired comments of seven decades ago that have long been discredited. If I understand Mark's blog correctly, Pfeiffer and Plouffe object to the Gallup Daily because it does not, contrary to Frank's assertion, provide an accurate description of where the presidential race stands today.

 

According to Mark's post, Plouffe claims that the topline polling data aren't especially useful (they "don't tell you anything"). Instead, the campaign focuses on who are the "true undecideds," and what messages will persuade them to vote for Obama. Knowing how many undecided voters there are is an integral part of understanding the presidential race. That's true for the campaigns, and it is no less true for political observers and the public.  

 

But Gallup refuses to measure the undecided vote, and instead gives a hypothetical description of a presidential race, "if the election were held today" - showing us that 95 percent of voters have already made up their minds. But the election is not being held today, and the Gallup Daily does not tell us the truth about how many voters are - at this point in the campaign - committed to a candidate, and how many voters have yet to make up their minds. From Plouffe's and Pfeiffer's point of view, the Gallup Daily is useless - even in understanding the national sentiment.

 

Frank claims that the public needs "independent polling" so that it doesn't have to rely on "campaign operatives' self-promoting insights on where the race stands." I  couldn't agree with him more. But the public needs accurate independent polling, which gives the public a full picture of where the presidential race stands. Gallup Daily does not do that. But it could.

 

Comments
Gary Kilbride:

Pfeiffer and Plouffe are in danger of becoming legends in political circles, even if their approach is wrong or merely mediocre. I think that's what we need to be aware of.

They've got an extremely talented candidate on their side. That alone provides inordinate margin for error. A bum could train Seattle Slew or Secretariat.

In the primaries the opponent made the remarkable choice of skipping the par 3 states, allowing Obama to prevail narrowly. Now Obama is running with a situational breeze behind him after 3+ years of Bush at 30ish approval rating. That dynamic yanks states into play with 35% to maybe 38% conservatives, states that otherwise would be gone.

It's a great time to be a Democrat but sorry I'm not ignoring the big picture. The cycle that Pfeiffer and Plouffe and others can impress me is 2010, assuming Obama wins in '08. We're operating under severe advantage in a 2006 second term midterm, 2008 after 8 years of this clown, and 2012 with Obama as an incumbent with his party in power only one term.

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jsh1120:

Plouffe makes a point that anyone who has ever been engaged in campaign polling would support. Top-line "horse race" results ARE practically useless, at least to a campaign. How, after all, is a campaign supposed to respond to a result that shows a candidate 5% behind or 10% ahead? Does either result provide a basis for tactical or strategic decisions? Does a 10% lead mean a candidate should save resources or spend more? What should a candidate do if he/she is trailing by five percent?

At best, it is the major trends in a race that are critical to a campaign. But even there, the top line results present a muddled picture. Never more so than when the fuzzy snapshots are presented on a daily basis and the truly critical data are buried in small subsamples.

I suspect that Plouffe's comment about the daily tracking polls reflects the frustration of a campaign professional in dealing with the real effect of daily tracking polls: the impact on a campaign's morale.

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Joseph Marshall:

If you step beyond Plouffe's exasperation at having to explain the upward and downward trends in a poll that Gallup itself has usually called a steady but slight Obama lead, with little relative change all summer, I think Plouffe does have a point.

First of all, constantly being questioned about 1-2 point shifts in a daily poll would bug me, too. The only sensible way to use Gallup is to take advantage of its consistent application over time to analyse past movements over periods no shorter than a week.

Used this way, I think Gallup gives a clear picture of the relative sizes, if not the absolute numbers, of the steady support for both candidates. And, over no shorter than a week, it tracks real changes in such steady support. Rasmussen usually gives different absolute numbers, but the same basic picture.

After that we can all scratch our heads about which are the "real" numbers, but I see no earthly reason to do so.

Plouffe can argue quite convincingly, "That was then, this is now, and I want my data to be right on November 4th."

When you read the rest of the briefing you can also see why Plouffe has a point about the irrelevance of daily polling. If thousands of white women voters in Texas, Alabama and Utah make a break to McCain because of the "role model" of gun-totin', moose-eatin' Sarah Palin, Plouffe couldn't care less. His opposite number in the McCain campaign couldn't care less either [though I'm sure he's not such a dunce as to say so].

On the other hand, if Palin's anti-abortion stance starts gaining ground among Hispanic Catholics, this will have every insider's attention. In other words, Plouffe's business is with the right voters in the right places.

It probably should be a larger part of the business of pollsters and news pundits, too. But pollsters are paid to poll, pundits are paid to pund, and Plouffe is paid to elect Obama.

If the pollsters started to merely cherry-pick their samples the way Plouffe does, their integrity and judgment would [rightly] be questioned. And if the pundits didn't dutifully ponder any mass movement of women voters toward McCain in the terminally red states, all hell would break loose--and some of those fine voters might also tote guns and like pundit for dinner on the days when they don't eat moose.

The Gallup Daily is not the worst thing to happen in ten years. It's a fine poll and a great help to pundits and reporters doing their jobs. But Plouffe may be pardoned for hyperbole, since it's a hindrance to his job, if only to waste his time answering questions about it.

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Baz744:

The Republicans are well aware that polls serve an additional purpose to gauging public opinion: they are part of the political argument. The leading candidate enjoys an advantage in the political argument just because he's the leading candidate. Democrats are traditionally less willing to exploit this aspect of polls than are Republicans. But it exists.

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Michael:

I think the problem Plouffe and others are addressing is bigger than what you are summarizing it as.

Yes, the gallup looks at the hypothetical national horserace at the exclusion of 50 state elections, but that's ony part of the problem.

Basic statistics show a poll will yield an result within the MoE 95% of the time, but that also means that 5% of the polls, or 1 in 20, will be outside the MoE. Putting a poll out every single day in the manner Gallup and Rasmussen do virtually assure a highly inaccurate poll at least once a month if not more, and when those occur everyone who doesn't understand the statistical noise factor will make a big deal out of that poll to the exclusion of all others. It turns the polls themselves into the story, rather than the campaigns and the issues, and makes the odd notion of winning the daily news cycle, rather than the overall campaign, that much more important which just wrecks the process.

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RS:

I was a little puzzled with David Moore's assertion that "Gallup refuses to measure the undecided vote..." - because Gallup currently shows just under 90% favoring either McCain or Obama, and other candidates are unlikely to make up 10+% of the national vote (they've been trying a long time...) That's similar to Rasmussen's numbers without leaners. So there should be about 10% undecideds...?

Per the 2004 CNN exit polls, 78% made up their minds over a month before the election. So I suppose David Moore's point really is that Gallup doesn't measure the softness of support for either candidate. Is that right?

As Joseph Marshall points out - Plouffe or Schmidt don't really care if the movement in the national polls come in deep-red or deep-blue states - so long as its in the right direction. But without that information - where the movement is coming from, at a statistically-significant level - the daily tracking polls are generally useless. That's why I prefer to look at the Gallup Key Indicators... :-)

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brambster:

I think we're mistaking what the statement really said. He said it was the worst thing that has happened to journalism and not polling.

The focus then was on the undecideds, and I don't believe this was completely a reflection of whether or not they were tracked, but rather the focus of the media on the decided vote which is fairly static until very late in the cycle, while the campaign's focus is on their message and what is best for bringing the undecided voters over to their side.

So for every minute of coverage on the horse race and those that have already made up their minds, that is a minute less that might be used to spread their tested messages to undecided voters.

National polls also focuses too much attention on the national numbers which do not track the expected electoral vote advantage at a given point in time.

If polls were tracking EV's instead of national popular votes, the Obama campaign would have been largely trouncing the McCain campaign by up to a 2:1 margin for much of the last 3 months, but instead the race is being characterized as a dead heat by some when you just simply take the national poll results.

So maybe this really boils down to the polls drowning out the message to undecideds, and also not giving what the Obama campaign believes is a proper characterization of the race as a whole which I'm sure they believe is anything but a dead heat. If the media reported it as being a full on drubbing, it would surely impact the strength of the second place candidate.

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Dont Count Yourself Out

Just when I thought, I was the only person in this world who felt so strongly Gallup polls are so partisan they are worthless, I see a link that leads to this well worded support for exactly how I have felt.

Gallup will go through many steps to deceive would be voters. Whenever Gallup gives Barack Obama and huge lead, I know the end result for Gallup's objective will be very low numbers for Obama. It is coming as sure as my name is Joseph.

Now, in a move to cover all views, Gallup releases 3 daily polls: Register, Likely voter, both expanded and traditional. The traditional number is low, the expanded is higher in number and so is the register. The point is they seem to making up numbers to make all voters connect with them in some way.

Joseph

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