Sunday, August 1, 2010

What the Survey Says

We tend to believe things that support our opinions and disbelieve the things that do not. With such human nature in mind, it is easy to understand the popularity of polling, also known as public opinion polls. The data that polls generate is enormous and critical to estimating what a well defined target audience is going to favor or reject. Survey data is the life blood of marketing and fund-raising. It is what the survey says.

Since George Gallup in the 40’s and 50’s engaged scientific method to public opinion polling in an analogue environment, polling today resembles a science of itself in our digital environment. Depending on the sampling size, surveys may boast a 2% to a 4% margin of error. The smaller the margin is, the better the chances are that the prediction results are accurate. Prediction is the key.

In politics it can be dangerous because events shape public opinion. The pesky public can change its mind on any issue and it does. Consider off-shore drilling. The Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico seems to have changed the opinion of Californians by a 16% swing, from a small majority that favored drilling to 59% who oppose drilling off the California coast. We know this because it is what the survey said.

CBS5/AP reports that the Public Policy Institute of California's poll “surveyed 2,502 California residents from July 6 to July 20 and has a margin of error of 2 percentage points. The margin of error was 2.7 percentage points for the 1,321 likely voters.” The poll also showed more than 22% of likely voters remain undecided.
No one surveyed me. “Undecided” is not a choice I would make anyway. “Prefer not to say” maybe, but no one asked me. And well they should not have asked me. I do not poll well. Most likely the reason is because I did not go to a mall, or did not answer my phone, or did not click on an online pop-up box. Somehow, I eluded the surveyors.

It is hard to sell a ticket to a sure thing. Sure things lack chance. There is no book to be made, except on long shots, when there are no odds. Sure things have no competition involved. That is why the emphasis on the polling data as it relates to the midterm elections has got to be reported as too-close-to-call. As a group the so-called undecided vote has obfuscated the data. So it is not necessarily the case that races are too close to call because of the margin of difference. They cannot be statistically determined. The data is unclear.

However, what is abundantly clear is abundance itself. The candidate who has the most money to spend to influence the undecided likely voters typically wins. That Public Policy Institute’s poll I referred to shows 39% of likely California voters support Democratic incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer for reelection, while 34% support Republican challenger Carly Fiorina. More than one-fifth of voters told pollsters that they are undecided.

Silicon Valley’s Mercury News reports that Boxer’s campaign “finished the first half of the year with $11.3 million in her campaign account. Fiorina had $953,000 in the bank.” Enter the RNC. “The National Republican Committee has committed to make a $1.75M television media buy for GOP Senate candidate Carly Fiorina in the final week of her race to unseat Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer,” reports the AP. Most of that money will be spent in Los Angeles. Boxer’s campaign manager, Rose Kapolczynski, said “the Republicans were dumping money into California to try to remake Fiorina, who was fired from HP in 2005.”

In the California governor's race, Democrat Jerry Brown has support from 37% of likely voters. Republican Meg Whitman has support from 34%. That could be considered close except for the 25% of likely voters who are undecided. Incidentally, California voters are heavily registered as Democrats compared to voters registered as Republicans. Whitman has been spending loads of money in advertising statewide. Brown has not, yet.

Regrettably just what the electorate is given to help them decide is ugly. Attack advertising will get uglier, especially in California, where media costs dwarf those of most other states. At this posting, the Politics Verbatim [weblog] has found a total of 363 ‘candidate attacks.’ Candidate attacks include any statement in which either the Brown or Whitman campaign takes a shot at each other or another political target.” In the next three months, the count will rise.

Money is flowing into media to go after the undecided vote to be sure. But I question just how undecided voters really are. Depending upon which group of pundits one hears or which newspaper opinion page one reads, the rhetoric tends to fall along For-Obama or Against-Obama lines. Yet neither of those arguments convinces anybody of anything. A Floridian associate of mine recently put it this way. “I think Obama is evil . . . not that I know of a Republican I would love to send to White House.” People like that are very hard to convince.

Washington Post columnist David Broder notes, “The history of midterm elections shows regular gains for the opposition party, and so far all the polls look upbeat for the GOP.” However, the flaw in a polling argument is that of voters not aligned to either political party. They are not undecided. They are nondecided. If they vote, it will probably be across a party affiliation, grudgingly or not. As a result the survey numbers are rendered ambiguous, a best guess.

Furthermore, voter turnout is low in midterm elections. says, “Turnout in midterm elections is far lower, peaking at 48.7% in 1966 and falling as low as 39.0% in 1978,1986, and 1998 remaining below 50% in midterm elections.” What that suggests is that so long as the election rules are consistent, “the same electorate can result in 60% turnout in one election and 2% in another depending on what is on the ballot and whether the election has essentially already been decided.”

“It ain’t over until it’s over.” Yogi Berra also said, “Baseball is 90% mental -- the other half is physical." So it goes with polling.

Robert Kennedy is quoted, “One-fifth of the people are against everything all the time." Here is what we know about those folks. They are decided voters. No further convincing is needed. Never mind facts, minds are already made up. They will turn out and vote. Results depend upon turnout. We know this because (I can just hear Richard Dawson's voice on TV’s Family Feud) “ survey says.”

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