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Eisinger: Reading the Polls Myopically

Topics: 2008 , Barack Obama , Hillary Clinton , John McCain , Measurement , SurveyUSA

Today's Guest Pollster contribution comes from Robert M. Eisinger, a political science professor at Lewis & Clark College and the author of The Evolution of Presidential Polling (Cambridge University Press).

There are few things more dangerous to sensationalized journalism than when anyone over-analyzes poll data. A recent Quinnipiac Poll shows Senator Clinton defeating Senator McCain in Ohio and Florida, but Senator Obama losing such head-to-head match-ups against Senator McCain. A SurveyUSA poll shows similar results in Missouri and North Carolina. Clinton defeats McCain, but Obama does not. These polls, it is argued, are worrisome for the Obama campaign, and serve as evidence among some Clinton supporters that she is a stronger candidate in swing states.

Beware. Poll answers, regardless of the question, must be placed in some context. The absence of at least one follow-up question may have yielded an interesting context from which to interpret the head-to-head answers provided. Imagine, for example, that the pollsters asked the following question:

"Imagine that Senator Obama eventually becomes the Democratic presidential nominee, and Senator Clinton enthusiastically campaigns for him. If the 2008 election for President were being held today, and the candidates were Barack Obama the Democrat and John McCain the Republican, for whom would you vote?"

One could even imagine tweaking the question by revising "Senator Clinton," "the Clinton campaign," "Senator Obama," and "the Obama campaign." Such questions are reasonable one to ask, especially when one is reminded that both Senators Obama and Clinton have stated that they would endorse the Democratic nominee. There is good reason to believe that Senator Clinton would be magnanimous and enthusiastically support the Democratic ticket. Similarly, there is no reason to conclude that the inclusion of this question would necessarily result in poll numbers that would greatly assist Senator Obama; it is quite conceivable that some of Senator Clinton's supporters do not want to a President Obama under any circumstance, and that Independent voters may be turned off by Senator Clinton's endorsement of anyone.

No doubt the Obama campaign is not rejoicing after reading the poll data. They would prefer numbers that show Senator Obama defeating Senator McCain in all states at all times. Senator Obama wants to win the swing states, and right now, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Missouri are not securely in the Democratic camp.

But there is something noticeably absent about asking about a viable scenario in which the Democratic presidential candidates, especially Senator Clinton, unite behind the winner, even if the nominee is Senator Obama.

[Typos corrected]

 

Comments
RS:

Professor Eisinger:
That is an excellent observation. It is applicable at least to the Quinnipac polls that came out for FL/PA/OH (I looked at this in some depth). The poll had a very long list of questions, but not the very realistic scenario of the Democrats, particularly Senator Clinton, uniting behind the nominee, presumably Senator Obama.

The Quinnipac general election match-ups show that on average (across FL/OH/PA) Obama followers support Senator Clinton 74-14. But Clinton backers split 48-31, Obama-McCain.
http://randomsubu.blogspot.com/2008/05/ge-match-ups-quinnipac-version.html

If Quinnipac had asked that additional question, I am sure we'd have seen better numbers for Senator Obama.

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eternaltriangle:

Why is it not sensible that many Clinton supporters would have RATIONAL preference structures such that Clinton > McCain > Obama.

Not that the Obama campaign was about policy, Obama is more liberal than Clinton on most issues save health-care. Moderate Democrats (among whom Clinton has consistently done well) and Conservative democrats may, for instance, support a more measured withdrawal from Iraq, or a gas tax holiday, etc. It is perfectly rational for such voters to prefer McCain over Obama.

Secondly, if you have people that vote on personal characteristics (and if that is "irrational", as you imply what does that say about Obama supporters). Some voters, for instance, value experience more than charisma. If that is the case, regardless of policy preferences, McCain is obviously preferable to Obama on that axis. Alternately if they are racist, McCain would be preferable to Obama.

Sure some Clinton supporters are "bitter" and clinging to their guns, but Clinton has galvanized support among the very segment of the Democratic party that is apt to switch sides. If it was just about bitterness, I don't think switchers would have the consistent demographic tinge that they do. It doesn't hurt that the Republican candidate is the least partisan Republican since Ford. It is very unwise to assume that these voters will just come back.

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AJbaker:

Obama faces the equivalent of a nasty bowling split: older feminist women on the left and Reagan Democrats on the right. Policies that please one group offend the other. Nonetheless, Hillary has them both.

Has anyone checked the role of sexism in where Obama gets his male support? Run a regression analysis of the difference in male/female income versus his percentage male vote?


Further, character as well a policy counts in choosing a President. Obama has traduced Hillary in ways which reflect on his character to the point that many of her supporters decided not to vote for him months back.

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