David Moore | August 5, 2008
Nick Panagakis' response to my column on a different approach to measuring vote choice reflects, I believe, the current conventional wisdom, that a forced choice vote choice question is the best predictor of how voters will cast their ballots. This approach, Nick argues, "historically comes close to the actual outcome." Not only that, he "cringes" when he sees pollsters hedge their bets on a poll, by saying "candidate A is up by 9 points - but 30% could change their minds." He says that reporting such numbers "devalues polls."
But what is the "truth" of the matter? Are we not interested in accurately portraying what the electorate is thinking "today"? If so, how can we say, as CNN does, that 100 percent of voters have made up their minds with more than three months before the election? Or as
Pollsters get away with producing such dubious numbers, I think, because most pundits take a schizophrenic approach to the polls. At one level, they treat the results as though they are the Holy Grail. At the next moment, they dismiss the numbers as being irrelevant at this time of the campaign season, saying that we need to wait until after the conventions before people begin paying attention to the election. Dan Rather's recent column encapsulates this sentiment, headlined as "Summer polls in the presidential campaign are pure folly."
If we are concerned about devaluing polls, we might want to think about giving an accurate portrayal of what the public is actually thinking (or not thinking) weeks and months before an election. The current vote choice question clearly does not reveal the extent of public indecision, and thus, I think, undermines the credibility of polls more generally.
I am not arguing that shortly before election day, in their last pre-election polls, pollsters should not press voters for their choices. I agree that in most elections, even the "undecided" voters have an inkling of whom they will support. Barring last minute media coverage that favors one candidate or the other, the faint-hearted leanings of these undecided voters usually turn out to be decent predictors of how they will act when they get in the voting booth. (Notable exceptions at the national level occurred in the 1948 and 1980 presidential elections, of course, not to mention the 2008 New Hampshire, South Carolina, and California primaries, among others).
Still, during the campaign leading up to the election, why should pollsters "cringe" at reporting that a large segment of the population remains undecided? In fact, that's just what CBS News has done, commendably in my view, when it headlined its latest poll results as "Poll: Obama Leads, But Race Fluid." Nick, it seems, would not favor such a headline, nor apparently would most other media pollsters - at least as indicated by their own reports.
There may be better ways to get at voter indecision, other than asking first, if people have made up their minds. Andy Smith of the
It seems pretty clear that the standard vote choice question sacrifices "truth" about the electorate during the campaign, whatever the question's utility in predicting results right before the election. The research task, I believe, is to find an approach that does not produce misleading results about the state of the electorate during the campaign, while still allowing pollsters to make as accurate predictions as possible right before election day.