The Great Poll Scam, Part VI: The Hay They Make

We’ve been discussing the MPR/Humphrey Institute and Minnesota polls for the past two weeks.  Indeed, it’s been one of the ongoing “go to” subjects of this blog for almost eight years now.


Because while  the polls themselves are risible, they have an effect on elections in Minnesota.

Part of it is in terms of people – “undecided”, “independent” voters – going to the polls at all.  I’ve related on this blog several stories of people who’ve pondered not going to the polls this past year.  Part of it was  because of the overwhelming negativity about Tom Emmer portrayed by the media – negativity, partly driven by the “Alliance For A Better Minnesota’s long, Dayton-family-funded, largely dubiously-factual smear campaign, but pushed hard in the media via the “polling” that they, themselves, commissioned.

Larry Jacobs at the Hubert H. Humphrey (HHH) Institute is the most over-quoted person in the Twin Cities media.  And during the campaign, Jacobs was seen as relentlessly as always in the Twin Cities media, flogging the Humphrey Institute’s polling first during the primaries (where the HHH’s polls showed Dayton with a crushing lead even though Dayton won the primaries by a margin not a whole lot bigger than the one we currently have in the governor’s race) and, finally, during the run-up to the election when the HHH poll showed Dayton winning with a 12 point blowout.

We’re still working on the recount for the 0.4% race.

Jacobs defended the poll (quoted in LFR):

JACOBS: Well, you know, a poll is nothing more than a snapshot in time. We’ve begun the interviewing nearly 2 weeks before election day. Barack Obama visited and we talked openly about the fact that this would likely change. There are, of course, all kinds of other factors that happened at the end, including the fact the almost 1 out of 5 undecided voters in our poll started to make up their mind.

The other thing to remember is that there were alot of other polls being conducted that showed the race closing at the time, something we were watching at the time, also.

That’s right, Dr. Jacobs.  There were a lot of other polls.

And except for the HHH and Minnesota polls, all of them showed a “snapshot in time” that was something close to the reality that eventually emerged on election day.

All of them.

So what?

Because opinion polling has an inordinate effect on media coverage and, less directly, the money and effort that people put into campaigns.

As to the media?  The New York Times has absorbed Nate Silver’s “Five Thirty Eight” stats-blog for its election polling coverage.  And throughout the race, the Times ran with the idea that Dayton was overwhelmingly likely to win.

And that supposition was based entirely on a statistical tabulation of opinion poll results.  And the stats were heavily based on the Minnesota and Humphrey polls, especially through the middle of the race, when the tone of the campaign was being set.  All together, the crunching of the opinion poll numbers led Silver to claim the stats showed Minnesota would be a convincing 6.6 point victory for Dayton; since political statistics are an essentially weaselly “science”, Silver also ran with an eight point margin of error.

Naturally, the media ran with the 6.6 points; a little less with the margin of error.

Now, there’s some media attention – the Minnpost, the City Pages – to the ludicrous nature of the polls.  Jacobs:

“If a shortcoming is identified, we will fix it. If not, we will have third-party verification that our methods are sound.”

Dr. Jacobs:  take it from this third party; it’s flawed.  Flawed to the point of illegitimacy.

More on the Minnesota Poll later…


\The series so far:

Monday, 11/8: Introduction.

Wednesday, 11/10: Polling Minnesota – The sixty-six year history of the Strib’s Minnesota Poll. It offers some surprises.

Friday, 11/12: Daves, Goliath:  Rob Daves ran the Minnesota Poll from 1987 ’til 2007.  And the statistics during that era have a certain…consistency?

Monday, 11/15: Hubert, You Magnificent Bastard, I Read Your Numbers!:  The Humphrey Institute has been polling Minnesota for six years, now.  And the results are…interesting.  In the classic Hindi sense of the term.

Wednesday, 11/17: Close Shaves: Close races are the most interesting.  For everyone.  Including you, if you’re reading this series.

Monday, 11/22: The Hay They Make: So what does the media and the Twin Cities political establishment do with these numbers?

Wednesday, 11/24: A Million’s A Crowd:  Attention, statisticians:  Raw data!  Suitable for cloudsourcing!

5 thoughts on “The Great Poll Scam, Part VI: The Hay They Make

  1. Huh. Their poll is “flawed”. Much like Minnesota’s election process. I believe in democracy. I don’t trust Minnesota’s election process. I’m not alone.

  2. If Jacobs believes his poll was an accurate “snapshot in time” (as opposed to an accidental camera-phone pocket photo), to what does he attribute so many voters running away from Dayton in the final days? Obama’s visit? A sudden slimy feeling by a number of would-be Dayton voters?

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