Gallup-ing Towards The Finish

They don’t call it a horse-race for nothing.

As a rule in polling, outliers tend to get ignored.  Or you can choose to believe that Bush won Hawaii in 2004, Alf Landon won a 1936 landslide, or that Clinton v. Dole was a nail-biter.

But it becomes harder to ignore an outlier when it’s A) close to the election and B) one of the oldest and most respected polling outfits in the nation.  Thus as the media enters Campaign 2012’s home stretch, the narrative of a nip-and-tuck contest looks decidedly jeopardized by Gallup showing Mitt Romney with a 7% lead – and such an outcome apparently has to be challenged:

With a record of correctly predicting all but three of the 19 presidential races stretching back to 1936, Gallup is one of the most prestigious names in the business and its outlier status has other polling experts scratching their heads.

“They’re just so out of kilter at the moment,” said Simon Jackman, a Stanford University political science professor and author of a book on polling. “Either they’re doing something really wacky or the other 18 pollsters out there are colluding, or something.”

The caveats to Gallup’s polling (as with any pollster) are well-versed.  But to find an answer as to why Gallup posts a major Romney lead while the Real Clear Politics average of pollsters shows essentially a tie has nothing to do with credibility or collusion.  It has everything to do with turnout.

Take the recent IBD/TIPP poll as Gallup’s doppleganger with Obama leading by 5.7%.  Democrats are outsample Republicans by 7%.  The UConn Courant showing Obama up 3%?  The sample shows Democrats with an 8-point advantage.  Gallup plays their cards close to the vest, not showing the partisan affiliation of their likely voter model.  But their registered voter breakdown still shows a Romney lead, albeit of a modest 3% and is likely based on their party affiliation polls showing Democrats up 4 points.

Gallup says it determines its “likely voters” by asking whether they have voted in the past, if they know where their polling place is located, and other similar questions. The formula has been tweaked this year to take into account the increasing prevalence of early voting.

Gallup’s Newport pointed out that the firm’s likely-voter formula has more accurately predicted the election results than its wider poll of all registered voters going back to the 1990s and, in fact, the likely voter prediction tended to slightly favor Democratic candidates.

The idea of a single pollster being simply a part of a larger trendline is accurate, even if most media outlets tend to overlook that fact to trumpet their own poll to the exclusion of competitors and thus create news rather than report it.  Yet even if we exclude Gallup’s results, the trendlines have to be concerning for Obama’s camp.  Despite wielding turnout margins better than what propelled him into office four years ago, many polls show Barack Obama at best narrowly ahead – and more commonly tied or behind.

Gallup might be overstating Romney’s support, although the pollster’s worst estimations of support were in the 5-6 point range and happened in 1936 and 1948.  In the modern era, if anything Gallup has consistently overestimated Democratic support at the polls, giving Obama 2% more, Kerry 0.7% more and Clinton 2.8% and 5.7% more in his campaigns.  Which may mean that despite a 7% lead causing headaches among the media, Mitt Romney may…hold for dramatic effect…lead by more.

7 thoughts on “Gallup-ing Towards The Finish

  1. Mitch just to make what is happening on RCP better they are understating a Romney lead (they currently claim Obama is winning 47.1% to 46.9%) but if combine all nine polls I’m looking at (which is what RCP claims they do) you get this:

    11369 voters have been polled.

    5312 say they will vote for Obama

    5431 say they will vote for Romney

    Romney leads 47.78% to 46.72% in polls which we suspect are overstating democrat turnout.

    And keep in mind I believe that if you haven’t made up your mind to vote for Obama you’re not voting or voting for Romney which means he’s doing much better than that!

    Walter Hanson
    Minneapolis, MN

  2. Good piece, FR. I have a feeling we’ll have a whole lotta navel gazing from the pollster class following this one.

  3. This reminds me a bit of some of the fallout from the 2K election.
    Both Gore and Bush had the goal of getting the most electoral college votes. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars in pursuit of this goal.
    As it turned out, Bush won the electoral college while loosing (very narrowly) the popular vote.
    Ignoring the Bush V Gore SC controversy for the moment, how would this make Bush any less legitimate a president than Gore? Bush achieved his goal. He was the better strategist. If Bush had conceded because he lost the popular vote, the worse player would have won. Gore was as focused on the electoral college as Bush was. Gore, and his election team, didn’t care abut the popular vote total until they’d discovered that they had won it.

  4. Don’t worry about the polls. They might be right or wrong, but, they don’t count for anything.

    If Romney wins we will have to hold his feet to the fire. If Obama wins, I might have to move off the grid.

  5. Terry:

    It is my belief that on the morning of election day that more people were planning to vote for Bush then Gore. To be exact I called up a radio show the night before because I was concerned in Minnesota a bunch of people coming from work will hear Gore winning a bunch of big states early and think the election was over. That’s what literally happened.

    California because they were three hours behind thought the election was over thousands of Republicans didn’t show up and vote causing Gore’s narrow popular vote win (the call of Florida early and inaccurate cost Bush something like an estitimated 10,000 votes so you can imagine the damage to other states).

    Ironic thing I correctly predicted Bush 271-267 on the call with an exercise I did where I gave Gore Florida though I think the early calls cost Bush three of the states I gave him, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Iowa.

    Walter Hanson
    Minneapolis, MN

  6. Walter Hanson-
    It may be true that more people intended to vote for Bush in 2000. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is the electoral college. It is not wrong when the person who wins the most electoral votes loses the popular vote and still becomes president.
    If we had a popular vote system Obama would be campaigning in CA instead of New Hampshire. No candidate, this year or any other year, spends a nickel trying to pick up the popular vote. Al Gore wasn’t trying to get it in 2k any more than Bush was.

  7. Terry:

    The electoral college is a way to help protect all of the states. West Virginia which I didn’t anticipate going to Bush did that because they saw what Al Gore was going to do to coal. The point I’m trying to make is that you have to make some push to try to win the popular vote along with the electoral college.

    The big problem is that are people who want to convert the vote to a straight popular vote in which the people of San Fransico has more votes gets to determine how Alaska and West Virginia use their natural resources. Then we open the system up big time to commit fraud.

    And Bush actually did some real campaign work in California unlike Romney.

    Walter Hanson
    Mineapolis, MN

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