Lies, Damn Lies and Polls

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain", the voice of the great and powerful Wizard of Oz tells Dorothy and her companions amidst the clap of thunder, clouds of smoke and frightening images of power and omniscience.

Yet all things come to an end, and the wizard's unmasking soon follows as Toto (a dog) pulls aside a curtain, revealing the great and powerful wizard is but a humbug. "I'm a good man," he tells Dorothy, "but a very bad wizard."

Fox News commentator and political analyst Dick Morris has a story out that pulls aside a curtain, telling his readers not to pay any attention to a slew of recent battleground state polls that show President Barack Obama leading challenger Gov. Mitt Romney. His story "Swing State Polls Are Rigged"  states that:

From noted Republican pollster John McLaughlin comes a clear and convincing exposé of the bias of media polls in the swing states of Florida, Ohio, and Virginia.

Citing recent polls in Virginia, Florida and Ohio, Mr. Morris explains the pollsters' error (bias?)

McLaughlin reviewed exit polls in each state for the past four elections. From this data about who actually voted, he found that the party divisions manifest on election day have little to do with the samples upon which the media is basing its polling. And, coincidentally, it is always the Republican vote that tends to be undercounted. ... Things are no better in Ohio. Here, McLaughlin finds a 2 point Democratic edge in the past four elections (38% Dem, 36% Rep). But the media polls show vastly more Democrats and fewer Republicans in their samples:

9-26: CBS/NY Times = 35% Dem / 26% Rep; 9-23: Wash Post = 35% Dem / 27% Rep; 9-11: NBC/Wall St Journal = 38% Dem / 28% Rep

Interesting stuff this, but why, you might ask, is this a GetReligion story? Because, the man conducting the NBC/Wall Street Journal polls, Dr. Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, along with his colleague Dr. Barbara Carvalho gave a briefing to the lunchtime session of the Religion Newswriters Association meeting.

This is my first RNA meeting and to my surprise I have enjoyed it greatly. My experience of mass gatherings of reporters has been filtered through my work for English and other overseas newspapers. British press "culture" is very different from that found at the RNA. More yoghurt, less alcohol -- there is a reason why they call Fleet Street reporters "hacks".

Meeting at a hotel in suburban Washington, over a hundred religion reporters (among whom are all the GetReligion team members) are participating in an assortment of briefings, seminar discussions and presentations on religion and the media. In a fascinating talk sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, Drs. Carvalho and Miringoff presented some of their research on the current campaign. Among their findings was a disgust for the negative politicking among the electorate, a sense of alienation between the issues the candidates are discussing and issues of concern to voters, along with data showing that attempts to describe the moral issues (abortion, gay marriage, etc.) in black and white terms -- forcing the answer to are you against or for abortion to be a yes or no -- does not faithfully paint a true picture of America.

The presentation, which was recorded by C-Span along with a panel discussion entitled "Whose First Amendment?", are well worth watching for you political junkies out there. And it will also give you a glimpse of me asking Dr. Miringoff to respond to Dick Morris' criticism of his polling.

When I was asking the question, Dr. Miringoff began to smile at me. Now I am a likeable fellow, all told, but his smile was not of bonhomie nor of Freemasons exchanging secret signs, but that of a cat who has a canary in his sights. Dr. Miringoff pounced on Dick Morris' story -- see the video for his full comments unfiltered by my note taking skills -- and argued that 1) this was sour grapes on the part of a Republican strategist whose man was lagging in the polls. In 2004 the Democrats charged the polls were under reporting their voters -- and now it was the Republicans' turn. 2) Party identification is not a fixed component akin to age, race, or economic status as party affiliation changes over time and also at the whim of the voter. Comparing the exit poll data from discrete points of time with something as amorphous as party identification was not as straight forward as Dick Morris had claimed. And 3) new polls will be released this Sunday in the wake of the first presidential debate that will likely cause the Democrats to complain.

Dr. Miringoff and Dr. Carvalho discussed the methodology of their polling, but also spoke to some of the unique circumstances pollsters are facing in this election. Youth turnout is likely to decline relative to the 2008 election. Will the absence of young people at the ballot box next month spell defeat for Barack Obama? One can speculate, but Dr. Miringoff suggested it would be wise for the president if he spent some more time on college campuses.

So, should we pay no attention to the man behind the curtain as Dick Morris suggests, or are the polls showing the president leading in the battleground states a fair approximation of voter sentiment a month out from election day? What say you, GetReligion readers?



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