The polls ended up making sense — but next time, who knows?
No offense to Nate Silver (or Barack Obama), but the biggest winners last night were the pollsters. After all, the vaunted FiveThirtyEight model is only as good as the data it runs through its algorithm…
But dark ages or not, the polls — with a few notable exceptions (cough, Rasmussen) — turned out to be right. And the polling outfit that had as good a performance as any was one that may have sparked even more pre-election conservative ire than Silver. Public Policy Polling, a small polling firm in North Carolina, conducted a whopping 255 public polls in 2012, and it often seemed like polling skeptics (and even other pollsters) had a bone to pick with each one. This was partly because PPP uses automated dialers. It was also because PPP is a Democratic polling firm. But when the results came in, PPP’s polls had called all 50 states correctly in the presidential race (assuming Florida ultimately goes to Obama), every Senate race, and every important ballot initiative. Its private polling — like the 23 surveys it did of Kentucky legislative races for one client — was similarly on the mark.
When I talked to Tom Jensen, PPP’s director, this morning, he was understandably in the mood to gloat. “These supposed polling experts on the conservative side are morons,” Jensen crowed. “Jay Cost” — the Weekly Standard’s polling expert who’d waged a number-crunching war against PPP — “is an idiot.” But Jensen conceded that the secret to PPP’s success was what boiled down to a well informed but still not entirely empirical hunch. “We just projected that African-American, Hispanic, and young voter turnout would be as high in 2012 as it was in 2008, and we weighted our polls accordingly,” he explained. “When you look at polls that succeeded and those that failed that was the difference.” Given the methodological challenges currently confronting pollsters, those hunches are only going to prove more important. “The art part of polling, as opposed to the science part,” Jensen said, “is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the equation in having accurate polls.”