What can we really learn from the 2012 polls?

The main things we know about the 2012 campaign polling is that Republican (and GOP-leaning) polling generally missed, and conservative pundits generally misjudged the polls (even if some of their criticisms of specific polls were accurate). However, much of the conventional wisdom curdling around the polling and analysis thereof is not only misguided, but risks misjudging polls in the future.

For example, it is increasingly said that conservatives were “poll deniers.” It is far more accurate to say that conservatives chose to trust national polling which tended to show Pres. Obama tied to narrowly losing over state polling which tended to show him winning. There were reasons to do so. Hindsight does not necessarily make those reasons unreasonable.

A variation on this theme I have seen from media types on and off Twitter is to suggest that various state pollsters, e.g., Marist were vindicated, while Rasmussen and Gallup were embarrassed. To be sure, a number of state pollsters got closer to the final result than Ras or Gallup in this cycle. But if we are to believe in the superiority of poll averages over individual (and in general, we should), then we are to believe that right-leaning polls will be balanced out against left-leaning ones. There are those who argue for following a few trusted polls, or weighting them for more accurate results. However, I suspect that if elections were not years apart, we might discover such people are like the those stock-pickers who claim to be able to beat the market; you may be able to do it for a while, but not over the medium term. Those who spent the cycle attacking Ras and Gallup while not mentioning their counterparts on the left were rooting for their team, not for the “science” part of public opinion polling.

The reason these observations may seem counter-intuitive this year is that, according to no less an authority than Nate Silver, Obama beat the polling consensus. Indeed, as Silver notes, the pollsters which tended to do best were partisan Democratic firms like Mellman, Grove Insight, and PPP. If the establishment media were actually neutral, this sort of performance by the polling industry would be more of a story… but they aren’t and it isn’t.

Fortunately, New York magazine’s Jason Zengerle caught PPP’s Tom Jensen in a post-elex gloating mood, and the non-gloating parts are quite instructive:

*** 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.”

GOP pollsters made the opposite assumptions and fared very poorly. But note this has little to do with the “science” part of polling.

And what of the less-wrong, nonpartisan state polling? What was their secret? Some will say avoiding robopolling, and that is likely partially true. However, it is easy to find live pollsters who blew it (Gallup, ARG, NPR, AP-GfK) and robopollers (and internet pollsters) who did not (Survey USA, We Ask America, YouGov). In addition to tech issues, one explaining factor seems to be how tightly or loosely likely voters were screened. Those who used traditional, tight screens, like Gallup and the NBC/WSJ national poll, tended to fare worse than pollsters who used loose to virtually non-existent screens, like SUSA. I tend to think those screening decisions may have been driven not by political leanings, but by the economic realities of securing steady work from media clients in local markets, especially in a limping economy. For example, SUSA’s polls often pass through over 90% of registered voters as likely voters, while the NBC/WSJ poll tends to pass-through closer to 80%. In the case of this year’s NBC/WSJ national poll, this tended to shrink the Democratic margin from D+5 to D+3. Turns out having a traditional likely voter screen was a disadvantage this year, but it is tough to see how thinking screening protocols developed over decades of experience was somehow unscientific.

What is obvious to most in hindsight is that the GOP pollsters, and a number of nonpartisan pollsters, ended up screening out young and minority voters using more traditional methods. Although Obama’s ability to turn out hispanic voters in key states was part of the reason they were wrong, the real story nationwide and in states like Ohio was high black turnout (which has much less to do with demographic shifts than could be said of the hispanic vote).

As a result, the state of the 2012 polling offers more questions than lessons. It is easy (and not wholly inaccurate) to mock Pres. Obama and his core supporters as a cult of personality. The more neutral way of putting this would be that Pres. Obama is an historic candidate who inspires minorities (again, more black than hispanic) and young people (again, more minority young people than white youngsters, if the exit poll is to be believed). And Obama’s campaign was highly effective in getting these blocs to vote.

The first question to be asked is whether this effect is limited to Obama, or has his candidacy turned these demographics into more habitual voters? If anyone might be in a position to answer that question, it would be someone like senior Obama adviser David Plouffe. And yet Plouffe seems uncertain about the fate of the Obama for America operation:

So what happens to the now-legendary Obama campaign machine that’s been operational for nearly six years? The Obama team said they would have to wait and see what their supporters want before taking any steps.

“We’re going to go through a process with our supporters, and have conversations with them about what they want to do next,” Messina said. “We’ve always listened to the ground.”

David Plouffe, the White House senior adviser who led Obama’s 2008 campaign, echoed those remarks, saying “you can’t just transfer” the Obama campaign machine to another candidate.

“People are not going to spend hours away from their families and their jobs, contributing financially when it’s hard from them to do it, unless they believe in the candidate,” he said.

In short, the conditions that produced the failings in most 2012 polling may not occur in 2016. But the GOP may not be able to risk assuming that they will not. Consequently, the real story of 2012 polling may not be separable from all of the other debates the right is currently having about its future. Conversely, the left, having won by more than predicted, may make the mistake of assuming 2012 is the new normal, when it may not be.

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