Mythical Presidential Horseraces
by Donald Devine
Issue 211– September 12, 2012
Everyone wants to know whether their favorite candidate will win the presidential election. So following the Democratic Convention the mainstream media were excited to enlighten us that President Barack Obama had pulled ahead in the presidential horserace – and the polls prove it!
But what is one to make of the proof: following the Democratic Convention Gallup had Obama ahead of Mitt Romney by 6% but ABC News’s poll had Obama leading only by 1%; CNN had Obama by 6% and Rasmussen merely by 1%? Well, at least they agreed President Obama was winning – but CNN said he had 52%, Gallup measured 50%, ABC reported 49%, and Rasmussen 46%. That six percent is quite a variation in who is ahead and by how much.
A week later Gallup said it was 47% for Obama and 46% for Romney. Rasmussen said it was 46% for Obama and 47% for Romney.
The fact is no one has the slightest idea who is winning or by what percent. All – repeat all – recent movement in the national and most state polls has been within the poll measurement error margin. All the media reports are random surveying noise. Well, then why are the media – especially TV – so fixated on the presidential horserace polling results? In the first place, they know their audience desperately wants to know who is going to win. More important, focusing on the horserace rather than in depth reporting on the critical factors affecting the race such as issues and the political environment gives them – as New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen puts it – “a reporting stance designed to signal the neutrality of the press.”
Focusing on the race advertizes the political innocence of the press because ‘who’s going to win’ is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession. This is experienced as pleasure by a lot of mainstream journalists, Innocence is bliss.
It is not often that such truth about media psychology is revealed to the masses. In fact, he spoke to a group of insiders. This is the time to confess that your author taught public opinion analysis at the University of Maryland for over a decade, wrote and spoke on polls regularly including in several books, and consulted politically regarding polls for many additional years thereafter, revealing some but not all secrets of this mysterious profession. The deepest professional secret is that polls are essential when trying to describe widely-held attributes such as cultural norms but when people are narrowly divided on issues or candidates polls cannot measure very well.
The disturbing truth about polls is that they have inherent sampling error built into their very methodology. It cannot be eliminated. The better polls have reporting errors of plus or minus three percent. That is, they are scientifically wrong within six percent (plus other types of error too esoteric to be discussed here). In most presidential elections, all of the changes in horserace position take place within that six percent. Any reported changes in presidential support within that range can be measurement anomalies and therefore are not facts but myth.
Even most candidates have no idea of this fundamental reality. The pollsters, of course, know it only too well and, in my experience, mostly they manipulate the survey margins, measure the likely voters, phrase the questions, and/or misread the results to confirm to their own and their client’s preferences. Like the journalists their protective myth is that of neutrality and it pleases them to act as witchdoctor for the campaign to measure the unmeasurable. In most campaigns, every major decision is made within the sampling static. How can they get away with this? They understand that if the candidate loses he might blame the pollster but losers disappear and no one cares what losers think. Only winners have any media or professional stature and they will give proper respect to the scientific magic that told them what they wanted to hear and allowed the better candidate to triumph.
One of the few exceptions to this self-delusion was Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign manager William Casey who had served in the World War II Office of Strategic Services and later became director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a spook who questioned all incoming information. In that winning campaign he set up a polling office as a team A and an office of political polling and analysis as a Team B to watch over it to question poll findings. Propriety requires that the author go no further but merely to advise other campaigns to do likewise.
As far as the journalists, there is nothing much anyone can do. Media have so much time and space to fill, so few resources, so many rubes anxious to know what they cannot know, and such a psychological need to pretend to be neutral (when they overwhelmingly prefer one candidate over the other) they must continue to make horserace journalism the center of what they do.
Citizens have two options. First, they can continue to delude themselves with the hollow talk of error margins disguised as fact. If listening is too painful and one insists on magical knowledge about the future, one can still tune out by only following the polls the real experts follow, how satisfied independents are with how things are going on around them. Few potential voters have not made up their minds by now but history suggests that if these are dissatisfied on election day they will vote overwhelmingly against the incumbent. If Independents remain near their current rate of merely 25% satisfaction with how things are going in the country, Obama will lose.
The better option is to stop listening to expert predictions, including this one, and concentrate on trying to affect the results.
Donald Devine, the editor of ConservativeBattleline On Line, was the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 1981-1985 under Ronald Reagan and is Senior Scholar at The Fund for American Studies.