A House Divided
A House Divided
Aggregate polling, i.e. a collection of polls averaged, forms the basis of the Huffington Post Pollster divisionâ€™s attempts to rectify the reported vagaries and statistical biases of individual polls in order to present a more refined, and hence â€śtruerâ€ť version of public opinion at a given time. However, even this attempt may be flawed insofar as each poll that is sampled, regardless of track record, (i.e. accuracy in predicting concrete results such as presidential election outcomes,) are equally rated and computed instead of being weighted based on past performance.
The purpose of this graphic therefore is to describe individual polling results in light of each pollâ€™s accuracy during the last presidential election cycle in order to visualize the sweeping differences in reporting between a selection of polling companies and to show the wide variety of conclusions each poll draws as well as how polls with poorer track records are statistically influencing the overall Pollster API in a fashion that outweighs their historical record for accuracy.
This may all a big game, played out over the backdrop of very serious issues confronting the American public. And so we may well ask, why?
There are two possible approaches to this question.
1.) Try to follow Hanlonâ€™s (or Heinleinâ€™s) Razor: â€śNever attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity,â€ť or;
2.) There really is something afoot, a blatant manipulation of polling data in order to serve a particular political purpose (this is the ultimate in gamesmanship, and therefore the reason for the game-board approach to this infographic). In a series of nine stories in 1980 on â€śCrucial Statesâ€ť â€“ battleground states as they are known today â€“ the New York Times repeatedly told readers then-President Carter was in a close and decidedly winnable race with the former California governor. And used polling data from the New York Times/CBS polls to back up its stories. Four years later, it was the Washington Post that played the polling game â€“ and when called out by Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins â€śabout his paperâ€™s lousy polling methodology,â€ť famous Post editor Ben Bradlee called his paperâ€™s polling an â€śin-kind contribution to the Mondale campaign.â€ť* Mondale, of course, being then-President Reaganâ€™s 1984 opponent and Carterâ€™s vice president. All of which will doubtless serve as a reminder of just how blatantly polling data can be manipulated by the media â€“ used essentially as a political weapon to support the cause of the moment, whether Jimmy Carter in 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984 â€“ or Barack Obama in 2012.**
A pollster under oath
In May, the pollster for Al Gore's presidential bid in 2000 and John Edwards's in 2004 and 2008, Harrison Hickman, took the stand in the federal criminal case against Edwards.
Under oath, Hickman admitted that in the final weeks of Edwards's 2008 bid, Hickman cherry-picked public polls to make the candidate seem viable, promoted surveys that Hickman considered unreliable, and sent e-mails to campaign aides, Edwards supporters and reporters which argued that the former senator was still in the hunt.
Hickman testified that when circulating the polls, he didn't much care if they were accurate. "I didn't necessarily take any of these as forâ€”as you would say, for the truth of the matter. I took them more as something that could be used as propaganda for the campaign," the veteran pollster said.
Hickman's testimony also opened a rare window into the way major presidential campaigns try to use polling numbers to spin the press and laid bare the fact that top campaign operatives sometimes propound a version of the truth starkly at odds with what they themselves believe.
Asked about what appeared to be a New York Times/CBS poll released in mid-November showing an effective "three-way tie" in Iowa, Hickman acknowledged he circulated it but insisted he didn't think it was correct.
"The business I'm in is a business any fool can get into, and a lot can happen. I'm sure there was a poll like that," the folksy Hickman told jurors when first asked about a poll showing the race tied. "I kept up with every poll that was done, including our own, and there may have been a few that showed them a tie, but... that's not really what my analysis is."
Hickman also indicated that senior campaign staffers knew many of the polls were poorly done and of little value. "We didn't take these dog and cat and baby-sitter polls seriously," he said.
Hickman acknowledged that on January 2, 2008, a day before the Iowa caucuses, he sent out a summary of nine post-Christmas Iowa polls showing Edwards in contention in the Hawkeye State. However, he testified two-thirds of them were from firms he considered "ones we typically would not put a lot of credence in." Hickman put Mason-Dixon, Strategic Vision, Insider Advantage, Zogby and Research 2000 in the "less reputable" group. He also told the court that ARG polls "have a miserable track record."***
* Ed Rollins, Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms: My Life in American Politics.
** How Carter Beat Reagan, Jeffrey Lord, American Spectator
***A pollster under oath, by Josh Gerstein, Politico