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Roundup: How Worthy Early Trial-Heat Polls?

Topics: 2008 , The 2008 Race

Here is a quick round-up of recent commentary and blogging elsewhere on polls and surveys on the issue of how much attention we should be paying to early trial-heat results:

  • In the latest update of his "Parse the Polls" feature, the Washington Post's Chris "The Fix" Cillizza asks three prominent partisan campaign pollsters whether "national surveys matter?" While the pollsters "all agreed that national polls have real meaning" for the 2008 primary races, Cillizza concludes;

[N]ational polls still lag behind early state polling when it comes to providing an up-to-the-minute look at the state of the race. It stands to reason that voters in Iowa who see the candidates on an almost daily basis -- either in person or on their television sets -- will have a deeper and better sense of who is truly viable than someone who lives in Connecticut or Idaho and occasionally sees a candidate on a news program.

  • Kathy Frankovic's latest CBS.com column provides some reasons "why we should be cautious - and maybe even a little skeptical - when reading poll measurements of candidate preference this early in a presidential campaign." One example:

Potential voters often choose candidates they are familiar with. Many announced candidates are simply unknown quantities. Even after his years in the Senate and a previous presidential run, 55 percent of Americans interviewed in an April Gallup poll still could not say whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Delaware Democratic Sen. Joe Biden. The earliest polls say more about name recognition than likely votes.

  • Last week in his Slate blog, Bruce Reed expressed even more cynicism about the usefulness of early primary polling. For all the poll bashing rhetoric, Reed did highlight one question I wish media pollsters would ask more often: Here is the full result from the most recent CNN/WMUR poll of New Hampshire Republicans (June 6-11, n=304):

"Have you definitely decided who you will vote for in the New Hampshire primary ... are you leaning toward someone ... or do you have no idea who you'll vote for?"

- 6% Definitely decided
- 37% Leaning toward someone
- 57% No idea who you'll vote for

Reed is right to point out the underlying discrepancy: Virtually all of New Hampshire's Republicans (92%) select a candidate when asked for whom they would vote if the election "were held today," yet a big chunk of these also say they have "no idea" who they will support. So it is not surprising to see results on the trial heat questions vary greatly from poll to poll and pollster to pollster.

Internal campaign pollsters always ask some variant of the "certainty" follow-up question, yet media pollsters rarely do. Reed urges them to "routinely report the more revealing percentage of voters who have no earthly idea whom they'll actually vote for." I couldn't agree more.

 

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