Checking in with UnskewedPolls.com

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

27 October 2012


UnskewedPolls's campaign map

Remember UnskewedPolls.com? Back after the Dem convention and before the first debate, a right wing bright spark by the name of Dean Chambers noticed that Mitt Romney was trailing a fair bit in the polls and decided that the problem couldn't be the electorate — it had to be the polls. So he fiddled around with the internals of a few voter surveys and served up what he considered a fair take on the campaign landscape, one showing Romney with a significant lead.

Now that the polls have tightened and Romney is no longer in such a dismal position, what's happened to the conservative effort to rewrite reality to remove the depressing parts? Quite a lot!

It turns out Romney's brightening electoral situation in real life has carried over to UnskewedPolls as well. Chambers is currently predicting a Romney landslide, including victories in Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and even the blue, blue state of Oregon. The analysis reads like Mitt Romney fan fiction. On Ohio, for instance: "Late momentum and great ground game win the Buckeye state for Romney." Prediction: Romney victory by eight points.

Give it a week and the site's version of Romney will have developed magic powers, lavender eyes, and will go by the name of Mittondra.


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Examining the Romney bounce

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

11 October 2012


Riding the current of his strong debate performance last week, Mitt Romney has surged into the lead into the lead in the Real Clear Politics polling Their seven day average now has the Republican nominee ahead by 1.5 points — the first time he's led in the entire contest. This is certainly significant but it's important to keep things in context. The majority of the responses for the major national polls were in the several days immediately after the debate. For instance, a Public Policy Polling report that had Romney up by two points overall had him leading 49–44 amongst those surveyed on Friday but only by 0.5 percent amongst those contacted on Saturday and Sunday. There are other recent polls though with Romney's gains holding more steady.  It's impossible to know for sure but my best guess is that when the dust settles Obama will be clinging to a tenuous advantage.

And while the national polls give us a good overall sense of the race, what really matters is the state polling and corresponding electoral math. Here the news is slightly better for the president. In the last several weeks, Obama had opened up pretty sizeable leads in many of these battleground states. Post-debate polls showed Romney making inroads into these deficits in states like Wisconsin and Virginia and Ohio. However, Obama is still either ahead or tied in the majority of the recent swing state surveys. Romney's gains on the national level haven't yet translated into a lead in the actual electoral college. What's important though is how these numbers look a week from now.

So yes, at this point Obama is still a modest favourite. But, regardless of where exactly the polls settle Romney's surge is telling in itself. Historically speaking, the current fundamentals should give the incumbent a fairly narrow advantage. So far in the general election though, especially post-convention, Obama has been performing decidedly better than the economic indicators would predict.

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Romney also seemed incapable of cutting into this lead whatsoever. There's good reasons to be skeptical when the race diverts from the historical norms. But there were also structural reasons, increasing party polarisation and the GOP's small-tent strategy, to think that it would be especially difficult for Romney to catch Obama.

This past week though, we saw that Romney really is capable of moving the polls in a big way.  Also telling is that, from my subjective perspective, the debate itself didn't really feel like it should be that much of a game-changer. Yes, Romney was sharp and impressive. And yes, Obama was somewhat listless. Scoring at home though I didn't think the divide between the two candidates was as great as many made it out to be.

But if this one event can cause such a quick shift it's a good indication that Romney's ceiling is higher than many of us believed. And that this race was always prone to revert to the close contest that the fundamentals would suggest. I always expected the race to tighten somewhat, but not this quickly. And Romney's path to victory looks a lot more plausible.

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Why the polls remain so steady

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

13 September 2012


I've been talking a lot recently about how stable election polls have been. The major reason: increased polarisation. The parties have moved further apart and voters themselves have become more set in their political preferences. But I can't help but wonder whether the coverage of elections is also a contributing factor.

The rise of electronic media has dramatically changed the public's interaction with politicians and political campaigns. Every day the internet is saturated with stories about the election. Every night we see soundbites of the candidates plastered all over the news.

What does this all mean? Well, I'm guessing that voters have an increased sense of familiarity with the candidates when compared to decades past. You don't have to wait until the debates to form an opinion about the presidential contenders. Yes, people's interest in the elections dramatically increases this time of year. But, unless you've been living under a rock — and it would have to be a pretty large and entirely soundproof one at that — you've already heard so much about this contest that it becomes harder for one more data point to be decisive.


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How many birthers are actually birthers?

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

13 July 2012


A couple weeks back, I mused on Twitter about the recurring polls purporting to show that large portions of the American population believe their president was born overseas:

Has any pollster tried to find out what proportion of Americans are aware of the constitution's natural birth clause?

Jonathan Bernstein extends the thought to post length:

I have the same reaction I've had for some time: I really do wonder how large the subset is of those who believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya (or elsewhere) but who also are totally unaware that there's anything important about it. I mean, I suspect if you did a poll of baseball fans I suspect that you would find a fair number of them who believed that Alex Rodriguez was born in the Dominican Republican and not, as he actually was, in New York City — but none who believe that it matters at all, which of course it doesn't for any baseball reason. I strongly suspect that a decent-sized chunk of "birthers" are aware of neither the natural born citizen requirement nor that there's any controversy about the whole issue; they heard someplace that Obama was board abroad and he has a funny-sounding name, so they figure he was foreign-born and that's sort of the end of it, no big deal.

And my suspicion is that, as I argued about the shibboleth that Obama is a secret Muslim, even among folks who do know about the natural birth clause, a claim that Obama was born in Kenya is simply a means of expressing dislike for the President rather than a sincere belief that he has no constitutional right to be president.

Really, "many Americans think Obama's presidency is unconstitutional" is such a good story that I suspect too few journalists are willing to investigate whether it's actually true or not.


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When the polls and common sense part company

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

14 March 2012


Two differing narratives emerged in the week before the Alabama and Mississippi primaries. The first, based on common sense, was that Santorum would win both states and that Romney would finish a distant second if not third. Santorum won Tennessee and Oklahoma on Super Tuesday by 9.1 points and 5.8 points respectively, and the very conservative Kansas by a whopping 30 points on Saturday. As Sean Trended explained, in this election  “demographics trump momentum.” So far, Romney had not done well in Southern primaries, and intuitively it seemed like things wouldn’t get any better in Mississippi and Alabama, the first and fourth most conservative states according to a Rasmussen survey.

However, the polls were telling a different story. Romney was neck and neck with his competitors in Alabama, and was eight points ahead of both Santorum and Gingrich in Mississippi according to one polling firm. Nate Silver’s election model, one of my go to sources for primary projections, gave Romney a 69% chance to win in Mississippi just two days ago. This morning, the same model showed Santorum with only a 9% chance of winning in Alabama and 2% chance in Mississippi.

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I could find no real analysis of this rift between the pundits and the pollsters, and was thus left to speculation. Often when viewpoints are so opposed, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. I figured that this was the case here; Romney was probably doing better than a lot of people anticipated, but the polls were probably off somewhat as well. It just didn’t seem likely that Romney could be as big a favourite and Santorum as big an underdog as the numbers claimed. A little clarity did come in the last two days, as Romney’s lead slipped a bit and Nate Silver did a good piece on the historic problems with Southern polling. Still, there was significant uncertainty on the eve of these two primaries.

Today the verdict came in, and common sense prevailed. Santorum won both races with Romney coming in third (about 3 points back in Mississippi and 4.5 points behind in Alabama). Here are a few takeaway lessons for future election forecasting:

  • Polls change quickly. Don’t put too much to stock in numbers that aren’t from the few days immediately prior to the election. The polls were never entirely accurate in this case, but Romney’s perceived advantage did decline as the run-up to the election got closer.
  • Look at the historical accuracy of the polling in the state. There was a lot of discussion about what the numbers said, but much less about whether they could be trusted. Nate Silver was the only person I found who mentioned that polling in these two states had been off in the past.
  • Think critically about potential explanations for the data. In this case, there was very little reason to think that Romney had suddenly discovered his Southern swagger and it made no sense that Santorum was doing so poorly in two states that should have been his bread and butter. Yes, it’s unusual for polls to be too far off, but it’s also unusual for voter preferences to deviate so far from common sense. Inaccurate polling may be unlikely, but if the alternative explanation appears even more implausible, there’s good reason to be sceptical.

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The Republican race, in one chart

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

6 October 2011


A chart showing the aggregate poll ratings of Republican presidential candidates over time.

Kevin Drum uses this chart to illustrate the rise and fall of Rick Perry, but it also succinctly illustrates the entire Republican race to date. The story of the contest thus far has been of a series of candidates putting their hands up, each of whom the party has looked at and decided is in some way unsatisfactory. Through all this, the default option has been plugging along, quietly establishing himself as the only possible choice remaining. To the GOP's consternation, that default option happens to be named Mitt Romney.

Which is not to say Rick Perry's finished by any means. Sure, that's a precipitous polling slump, but if he pulls out of the dive, it will just end up looking like a blip. Notice that Herman Cain's recent uptick has coincided almost exactly with Perry's fall. This suggests that even as some sections of the party are having doubts about the Texas governor, they're not yet ready to give the race to Romney. Perry can come back. There's still a market for a non-Romney option, and from this stage in the race on, that market will be monopolized by Rick Perry. Romney's strategy of outlasting the competition can still work, but his task from here will be to convince the sort of Republicans who prefer Perry that, even if they don't like Romney, they will be able to live with him.


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Question time

By Jonathan Bradley in Seattle, WA

26 March 2010


James has a few questions for me. I'll try to come up with some answers.

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  • I describe the Washington Post article in question as having "may" misrepresented some of Newt Gingrich's comments regarding civil rights because the Post's correction is based only on emailed "clarifications" from Gingrich himself. The paper makes no indication that it concedes the reporter in question, Dan Balz, misrepresented Gingrich. Nor does Balz, in his post on the matter on the paper's 44 blog. Neither Gingrich nor Balz, to my knowledge, have offered the relevant quote in full, so it is impossible to know whom to believe; one, either, or both could be dishonest here. However, I cannot see how this squabble could justify James' sweeping condemnation of Krugman, an opinion writer who used a quote from a report that has been disputed after the fact. I do believe, though, that reading the top line results of a poll and reporting them with a link to an ideological blog suggests insufficient inquiry at best, particularly when further exploration reveals a data set contradictory to the narrative at hand.

  • Republicans will gain a lot of seats in November because American voters currently loathe incumbents, and Democrats are more likely to be incumbents at the moment. This year, that loathing of incumbents looks like it will overcome the public's disenchantment with Republicans, though Republicans can undo that by reminding the public why it does not like the them. I will note that polling guru Nate Silver seems far less impressed by the post-pass bounce than I do, though he thinks it exists. He calls the data "decent, but not great" for Democrats, and speaks approvingly of a Quinnipiac poll. The Quinnipiac poll finds that voters disapprove of the health care reform 49-40 per cent. It does not indicate why they disapprove of it. It also finds that voters disapprove of attempts to challenge the constitutionality of the reform, but are more likely to vote for politicians who opposed the reform. Significantly, however, it finds that gigantic chunks of voters say a representative's vote on health care will not make them any more or less likely to vote for them in November. In fact, most voters will not be less likely to vote for a representative because of their health care vote. Americans right now, above all else, care about the economy, and the economy is still looking pretty awful.

  • The Rasmussen poll James links to does show that 55 per cent of likely voters favor repealing the bill. It may well be right, even though Rasmussen has a noted tendency to elevate Republican numbers. In America, because voting is optional, likely voters and "Americans" are very different things. As Silver says:

    Rasmussen, for instance, is one of the few pollsters to already be employing a likely voter model at this point. It's not uncommon for likely voter polls to have comparatively better results for Republicans, since Democrats rely on votes from groups like young voters and minorities who turn out less reliably in midterm elections. (And, indeed, Republicans appear to have an especially significant enthusiasm advantage in this cycle.)

    Rasmussen may indeed be a better predictor of events in November. Congress, however, governs for all Americans, not just likely voters, and if evaluating policy approval, I see no problem with referring to a poll that includes people who are considered less likely to vote next November.

  • I take polls seriously because, as my previous post demonstrated, they can drive narratives, and if interpreted incorrectly, drive them in a direction contrary to the public's actual point of view. If the only poll that mattered were indeed the one on election day, James should cast his mind back to the most recent national poll, and recall that Democrats won the Presidency, as well as increased margins in the House and Senate. And if he finds discussion of polls uninteresting, he should endeavour to quote polls less often in his posts.

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Compare and contrast

By James Morrow in Sydney

27 August 2009


"One death is a tragedy", Stalin is supposed to have said. "A million deaths are a statistic." That quote came to mind as I listened to Sydney ABC Radio's coverage of Sen. Edward Kennedy's death this morning: Heavy dirges were about the only thing missing from 702's reporting, which was suddenly thick with the mournful tones of a Cold War-era TASS broadcast announcing the passing of another communist premier.

Dirges, and of course any mention in more than the most passive-voiced, passing tones of the fact that Ted Kennedy was a deeply flawed individual who in 1969 left a campaign aide, Mary Jo Kopechne, to drown after he drove her off a bridge then swam for shore, waiting until the next day (presumably after he sobered up) to report an accident that by no means had to become a tragedy.

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Certainly on a political level, Kennedy's death makes the Obama administration's efforts to ration - er, reform - health care that much more difficult, as it leaves Democrats down a Senator despite special pleading that the law should be changed to allow the immediate appointment of a successor instead of a special election in five months time.

Such a request was, of course, one of the last political acts performed to benefit a man whose entire life was spent in a family that thought the rules did not apply to them. And it is interesting to note how Sen. Kennedy's passing has been the occasion for encomiums and obituaries from an adoring media that seems only now to have gone back to their Plutarch and read of Solon's injunction that one should not speak ill of the dead.

Compare and contrast this to the way, say, former American Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's death was treated last month. Hardly respectful, the coverage sounded like nothing so much as The Simpson's Rev. Lovejoy calling out, "See you in hell - from heaven!". McNamara's efforts to come to grips with his role in the Vietnam War - a role, it is rarely mentioned, which he played for a Democrat administration - were brushed away as mere cynical self-justification.

The Australian's Philip Adams went so far in his weekly column as to not only draw an analogue between McNamara and Albert Speer, but to then make the next (il)logical leap and suggest that as such, the United States may as well be Nazi Germany.

Meanwhile in Sen. Kennedy's case, the American and Australian media is acting as if a living, secular saint - their very own Princess Di - has just left us. This despite Sen. Kennedy's leaving a well-documented trail of human carnage in his wake. Apparently the fact that he was an "effective legislator" (read: worked tirelessly to expand and consolidate the role of government in individual Americans' lives) excuses all.

Look, I know that we are all complicated, flawed individuals. And I am deeply aware that the great promise of American life is that it holds out the constant possibility of redemption, of second acts, of a sort of secular grace in this life and not the next.

But still, in comparing and contrasting Kennedy's kid gloves treatment at the hands of the media to that of McNamara (and any number of far less flawed Republicans), one must marvel at such a curious inversion of Stalin's dictum: Among the Left, a million deaths is a tragedy.

A single death, such as that of Mary Jo Kopechne, is a statistic.

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