‘‘The. Polls. Have. Stopped. Making. Any. Sense.’’
American politics has gone gaga for poll numbers—while polling pros feel less and less certain about the methodology behind the madness. Some days even Nate Silver is left scratching his head.
By Jason Zengerle
Published Sep 30, 2012
On the Friday after the Democratic convention, Tom Jensen tried to reach out and touch 10,000 Ohioans. He wanted to ask them, among other questions, whom they planned to vote for in November: Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? This sort of thing is easier—and harder—than you might think. As the director of Public Policy Polling, Jensen has at his disposal 1,008 phone lines hooked up to IVR (interactive voice response) software that enables PPP to make 400,000 automated calls a day. All Jensen needs to do is feed the 10,000 phone numbers into a computer, record the series of questions he wants to ask, press a few buttons, and voilà: He has a poll in the field. That’s the easy part. The hard part starts with getting people to answer the phone. Beginning that Friday night around six and then five more times over the course of the next two days—in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings—PPP called those 10,000 Ohioans; by Sunday night at eight, only 1,072 of them had been reached. Still, for Jensen’s purposes, that was sufficient, and he got to work assembling his poll.
And that’s where things get even more difficult. The 1,072 Ohioans who participated in PPP’s poll were, as is the case with almost every poll taken today, older and whiter than the electorate. As a result, Jensen decided to give more weight to certain respondents’ answers. “If the whole world was releasing unweighted polls,” he says, “Mitt Romney would be heading to an easy election.” For instance, although African-Americans accounted for just 7 percent of the respondents to PPP’s poll, Jensen believes—based on census data, past elections, and the current political environment—that black voters will make up 12 percent of the Ohio electorate come November. So Jensen multiplied his African-American respondents’ answers by 1.5. Similarly, only 7 percent of the respondents were under the age of 30; since Jensen projects young people will make up 14 or 15 percent of Ohio’s electorate, he multiplied his 18-to-29-year-old respondents’ answers by two. After some additional statistical tinkering, Jensen had his poll, and a little past ten on Sunday night, PPP released the results.