The Uncertainty of Polls and the Independent Vote

Yesterday I noted the problems in using polls to predict the outcome of the presidential election. I subsequently found this story in CQ Politics which deals with the same topic. They note a few problems pollsters are having:

First, with an African-American atop a major party ticket for the first time, many experts in opinion research are concerned that public support for Obama could easily be misrepresented. This is not only because it’s difficult to assess Americans’ attitudes about race, but also because the Democratic senator from Illinois derives considerable support from African-American and young voters, whose behavior is particularly hard to predict because they have not historically turned out to vote in large numbers.

In addition, both Obama and McCain are reaching out to a growing number of disaffected voters who are concerned about the economy, the war in Iraq and the nation’s future and who are increasingly pessimistic about government’s ability to solve problems. Pollsters are having to assess whether members of this highly courted subset are warming to any particular campaign messages, or will simply sit out the election.

Finally, there are logistical concerns. Experts inside and outside the industry question whether pollsters are capturing big enough samples of the population at a time when Americans are increasingly on the move and more likely to be at work or in their cars in the early evening, when many surveys are conducted.

The article continues to look at these factors and additional ones. The discussion of independents might be particularly important this year:

This has a particular bearing in questions about party identification and political attitudes. As many as half the respondents to some surveys identify themselves as independents when asked their political affiliation. Pollsters tend to find this an inadequate characterization and push the individuals by asking whether they “lean” Democratic or Republican. The tactic has proven a useful barometer of public sentiment in a year such as this, when growing numbers of people are identifying with the Democratic Party, partly out of dissatisfaction with President Bush. However, experts caution that the identification question may be unreliable for predicting election results because other, more rigorous polls indicate that the Democrats’ public standing has not improved significantly; it’s more a function of the Republican Party losing support among independents.

Gallup, working with USA Today, took another measure of voter independence in June, concluding that 23 percent of 1,310 likely voters it surveyed are “swing voters” who could change their minds before Election Day. That suggests that Obama and McCain would be best served by focusing their pitches on uncommitted voters instead of concentrating on mobilizing their respective bases. But Moore, the former Gallup managing editor, suspects that the public mood isn’t quite as volatile as the survey suggests, and that many of these individuals haven’t even decided whom to support. He suggests that pollsters could obtain a more accurate characterization of undecideds by rewording their questions and asking people up-front if they know whom they will support in November.

“Most independents don’t vote all the time, but when they do, they tend to really be undecided going into the final days of an election,” Moore said. “Many are susceptible to some kind of influence from media coverage, and past surveys showed one in six didn’t vote the way they said they would a few days earlier. So a lot of the answers are still out.”

Each party nominated the candidate who has the best chance to pick up the votes of independents. Since independents have become opposed to the Republican Party more than they support the Democrats, John McCain is able to remain close as long as he can keep up the pretense of being independent and different from Bush.

Obama has the edge, but we would have a totally different situation if the Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton. While the Democrats’ standing has not improved significantly with independents, Obama is able to pick up the support of many who remain uncomfortable with the Democratic Party. Not only would Hillary Clinton be unable to do this, but she would increase the likelihood of independents backing McCain to prevent her from being elected, seeing McCain as the only alternative to what they oppose in each party. As frustrating as it might be for some to only see Obama up by a few points in most polls, if Clinton was the nominee she very well might be trailing McCain at this point.

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4 Comments

  1. 1
    rawdawgbuffalo says:

    I figure neither McCain nor Obama has a clue about the common man. Label me Cow because I got beef with them both.

  2. 2
    Jerry says:

    raw:
    McCain is the guy with an admiral for a father, $600 shoes and 6 mansions.  Not to mention a wife worth over $150M.  Obama is the guy who lived in near poverty with his single mom, only made it to college because of his brilliance, and has made himself the success he is.  Not only that but Obama spent many years helping the poor and recently laid off in Chicago.
    From these two life stories, I would say Obama has “a clue”.

  3. 3
    Jerry says:

    I’ve always felt that it was a mistake for Obama to try to paint McCain as Bush’s best buddy.  First of all, it’s just not true.  Second, the truth is even worse.
    McCain is McCain which means that he’ll switch any position if he thinks it’ll help politically.  (One exception: he knew the surge had to work if he had any shot at the GOP nomination – he couldn’t back out of being for the war!)  And McCain is just an awful hot head, bubble head, and potty mouth.  He dumped his first wife who waited for him during his POW years for a rich wife that could help him with his ambitions.
    His maverick years are well behind him.  Simply using all of this is enough; no need to stretch it beyond credulity by implying that he’s Bush.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    Jerry, agree that those who say John McCain = George Bush are incorrect. There are even some ways in which McCain is better than Bush. However I’m sure you’d also agree that McCain isn’t the moderate or straight talker which some independents have been led to believe he is. While I disagree with arguments based upon portraying McCain as being exactly the same as Bush, it is worth pointing out the many ways in which he is the same, or almost as bad.

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