Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Polling Thing in New Hampshire

CNN pollsters hard at work

So, the media's freaking out because they say the polls were terribly wrong in New Hampshire. But, really, they're paying about as much attention to the numbers now as they did before the primary.

I highly recommend reading, "New Hampshire: So What Happened?," by Mark Blumenthal, Editor/Publisher of It's the best article I've come across on the subject.

If you look at the last polls before New Hampshire, and look at the actual results, and you take into account the "margin of error" that the polls always mention and everyone always ignores, the numbers for all of the candidates in each party were on target.

With the single exception of Hillary Clinton.

And I think that can be easily explained by the fact that Diebold machines were used for the voting and the Clintons hacked into the system.

I'm kidding.

Well, I'm kidding about the Clintons hacking the system. Although, some bloggers are shouting "Fraud!" And one blogger claims "Those Diebold op-scan machines are the exact same ones that were hacked in the HBO documentary, Hacking Democracy." And, now that I think about it, Hillary did compare herself to Lyndon Johnson the other day, though I still can't figure out why. She said that Martin Luther King Jr. may have had the dream, but it was President Johnson that brought about the change with the Voting Rights Act. Which is about the stupidest remark I've heard in the entire campaign. Why a woman who voted for the Iraq War would want to compare herself to LBJ, while comparing Obama to Dr. King is really beyond me, as much as I think LBJ was a better president than he's given credit for. But now that I've spoken poorly of Mrs. Clinton and planted seeds of doubt about her victory, what about the real story?

The question is: Why were her numbers so far off? Some last-minute swing? The choking-up thing? Women feeling sorry for her? Actually, several of the 3-day polls, if you look at them more closely, showed Hillary gaining significant ground the last day or so. But they were 3-day polls, so the numbers didn't reflect that momentum much.

Jeff brought up the problem of cell phones not being counted in polls, and that is a concern in general. I would argue, though, that by excluding cell phones, which are used more by younger people, the numbers - if the were really impacted - would have been better for Obama in the end, as many of his supporters would've been ignored before the primary.

New Hampshire had a huge amount of voters who didn't make up their minds until the last day - 17% for the Democrats and 19% for the Republicans. And 21% more of the Democrats didn't make up their minds until the last 3 days. So, 38% of the Democratic voters didn't know until the end. Hard to poll that.

I crunched some numbers, and McCain got 38,000 votes from people who made their minds up in the last day or last 3-days. Obama lost by 7,500 votes. A lot of Independents were torn between McCain and Obama, and I think Barack lost some votes that way, because people thought he was far enough ahead that it didn't matter. But again, his numbers were actually on target.

So, something last-minute got missed in Hillary's numbers. As time goes on, I'm sure more thorough explanations will be forthcoming.

Pollsters certainly aren't perfect, but a lot of the blame lies on the way the media covers the polls, and on us for not paying more attention ourselves. I'm not that worried about the polling. It is what it is. You wanna bet on horse racing using only speed ratings? Go ahead. But those numbers are only part of the picture.

What happened in New Hampshire is probably a good thing, because pollsters will have to be even more careful and attentive with their polling, reporters and pundits will actually have to look more closely at the numbers, and the rest of us will have to take these things with a bigger grain of salt. That's never bad.


Liam said...

It reminds me of the last British elections that the Tories won. Everyone was sure from the polls that Labour was way ahead, then, surprise!

Zogby had a column in the Huffington Post in which he said that number of last-minute undecided voters was extraordinarily high in this primary.

Jeff said...

That’s a pretty good article by Blumenthal. I guess the obsession with polls on the part of the press and some pockets within the public does egg on the media outlets to jump the shark a bit in their reporting on these races, and the subtley and caveats attached to the polls tend to get overlooked. Maybe the pollstars need to do a better job of speaking up with a word of caution now and then about the pecentage of undecided voters, the possible margin of error, and so forth… But, hey, they’re in a competitve business with each other too…

I can understand why the media either doesn’t understand, or chooses to ignore the scientific aspects of how polling works, but campaigns do understand how it works, endlessly crunching these numbers down to the precinct level, and they sometimes get caught flat-footed too. The thing that seems consistent between NH and the presidential election of 2004 was the higher-than-expected turnout. Maybe that’s the best explanation for what throws these things off. In 2004, Mike McCurry reassured Kerry early in the day that he’d won the presidency. He had the polling numbers for his own base down to the T, but he underestimated the turnout of the Republican base.

I thought Mike Barnicle had some pretty good commentary on MSNBC on explaining the Hillary turnout. Owmen rallied to her. Women in NH seem to have rallied to her in a way that they didn’t in Iowa. It might just simply be a case of hard-working women identifying enough with her (for one reason or another) to want to keep her going.

Regarding the youth vote and Obama… I was hearing a little bit about how prior to the primary, Bill Clinton was on the verge of one of his legendary “purple fits” with the NH officials for scheduling the primary just 5 days after Iowa, but as it turn out, it really may have helped the Clinton campaign, because Dartmouth was the only college in NH that was back in session.

cowboyangel said...

Yeah, Zogby was really getting ripped apart in the comments to his article. People are really upset about "being mislead" by the pollsters. These are probably the same people angry about the war who vote for Hillary or McCain. He nailed the Iowa contest, however - the best results out of any of the polls.

cowboyangel said...


Good point about the students in New Hampshire. I mean, our campus is dead right now. And my wife - on break between semesters - kept bringing this up every time announcers mentioned the "student" vote. "What students?!" On the other hand, there wouldn't have been any more students in Iowa, yet the number of young people coming out was huge. Many students may stay in the state, others are returning home from somewhere else, and many young people aren't in college.

I think women did respond to Hillary because of some of the things happening the days before the election. Her choking up a little was so blown out of proportion. (Jon Stewart's take on it was good, I thought.) And I think a lot of the response in the media was sexist. So I can understand why women might have voted for her.

Did you read Maureen Dowd's column yesterday, though? I'm not a fan of Dowd, but I thought she had some good points. For example:

There was a poignancy about the moment, seeing Hillary crack with exhaustion from decades of yearning to be the principal rather than the plus-one. But there was a whiff of Nixonian self-pity about her choking up. What was moving her so deeply was her recognition that the country was failing to grasp how much it needs her. In a weirdly narcissistic way, she was crying for us. But it was grimly typical of her that what finally made her break down was the prospect of losing.