Political Polls 101

Posted: October 21, 2010 in Uncategorized

If you are a fellow political junkie then you are probably inundated with polls as we are less than 2 weeks from an election that promises to wholly transform our nation.  I run into many fellow evangelicals who are puzzled by the ups and downs of weekly polls and fail to understand why some races that seemed to be a lock for conservatives suddenly seem so close.

I worked in politics for 5 years.  I worked on 2 different Congressional campaigns, spent 2 years on Capitol Hill as a Congressional aide, served as deputy counsel to a state political party while practicing law, ran a number of local campaigns and attended several campaign schools before turning to full-time ministry. 

Here is what I learned about polls: (1) beware of partisan polls.  Last week a poll dropped showing Democract Joe Sestak leading Republican Pat Toomey for the first time in the Pennsylvania Senate race.  The problem is that the poll was a Democrat poll worded in a way that gave Sestak an advantage.  If you click over to Real Clear Politics and look at the various polls they collect, you can see if the poll was funded by a party by looking for an (R) or (D) next to the name of the polling company.  Don’t trust partisan polls; (2) Each campaign is affected by other races and the party in power of the particular state.  What I mean by that is this, people tend to vote for governor not senator.  So, the senate candidate’s chances are affected by the turnout for the governor candidate of the same party.  If the party in power of a particular state is not popular then this will hurt the candidates of that party even if  they are ideologically opposed to the incumbent.  For example, despite the widespread anti-Obama sentiment among the electorate, Republicans in California are having a difficult time gaining an advantage in the polls.  The reason is not just that California is liberal but that Arnold Schwartzenegger is a Republican and is unpopular.  Thus, Democrats are in better shape out west than in most places.  (3) Any incumbent under 50% in the polls by early next week is in serious danger of defeat.  You may see a poll stating that Harry Reid leads Sharon Angle 47% to 45% and think the senate majority leader is really in the lead…not so.  Undecideds tend to break in overwhelming numbers for the challenger.  The undecided voter knows the incumbent and, if they aren’t sold a week out from the election, then chances are they will not vote for him or her.  The incumbent will pick up a small number of undecideds, so if a good poll has an incumbent at 49% then he or she may survive a close race but if they are anywhere under that, they are probably a goner!  I worked a congressional campaign for an incumbent in 1992 and said incumbent had a 48% to 40% lead in the polls a week out.  We lost 51% to 49%.  

I’ll post my predictions next week.   Until then, I urge you to pray for the forthcoming elections and for those currently in power.

UPDATE: A new CNN poll claims that incumbent Governor Ted Strickland now leads challenger John Kasich by 1 point but, if you look closely at the poll, it assumes that more Democrats will vote this year than Republicans…anybody buy that? Yet another reason why you need to study polling methods as well as poll numbers.

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