Fear of polls

It doesn’t matter whether you support Romney or Obama.  When a new poll is released you start to parse it.  Who did the poll?  Are they a Democratic or Republican leaning pollster?  How is it different from the last poll you saw?  What do the pundits say?  Does the result make me happy or anxious? 

This morning RealClear Politics had these numbers:

Average:  Obama +3.2

Electoral College:  Obama 227   Romney 170  (270 needed to win)

Intrade:  Obama  60.4    Romeny 38.2  

Nate Silver, my poll guru, had some advice the other day.  If you are a political junkie, read the whole article, but here are some of the highlights for me.

1. Be patient. Many of the poll-watching habits you learned for the primaries you will need to unlearn for the general election.

In the primaries, it is often worth paying a tremendous amount of attention to how recently a poll was conducted. Because voter opinion shifts rapidly in primaries, a poll that is even two or three days old might have substantially less information value than one that was released today.

That just isn’t true in the general election, when there are fewer swing voters, the candidates are better known, and voter preferences are more rigid. Instead, polls have a much stronger tendency to revert to the mean, and what is perceived to be “momentum” is often just statistical noise. In October, it might be worth sweating just a little bit if there seems to be a two- or three-percentage point shift against your preferred candidate. Right now, it probably isn’t; a poll released on April 20 isn’t going to be much better in the long-run than one released on April 10.

2. Take the poll average. This ought to be obvious, but you should generally be looking for a trend to show up in several different polls from several different polling firms before you start to view it as newsworthy.

5. Pay attention to likely voters versus registered voters. It is worth looking at whether the poll is conducted among registered voters, likely voters or all adults.

In the past eight presidential election cycles or so, the Republican candidate has done a net of about two percentage points better on average in likely voter polls than in registered voter polls.

6. Keep paying attention to Mr. Obama’s approval ratings. In the early stages of general election campaigns, a president’s approval ratings have often been at least as accurate a guide to his eventual performance as the head-to-head numbers. Thus, for at least the next couple of months, I would pay as much attention to Mr. Obama’s approval ratings as his head-to-head polls against Mr. Romney.

It is probably slightly better to look at Mr. Obama’s net approval rating — his approval less his disapproval — than the approval rating alone.

11. Read the polls in the context of the news. Polls don’t just shift on their own; they change because people are reacting to changes in their circumstances and to different news events.

Political reporters have beats and deadlines and need to turn stories around every day. But most of the day-to-day squabbles that the campaigns have don’t matter to most voters. If there is a shift in the polls, it is much more likely to be real rather than illusory if it follows something like an Israeli air strike on Iran or a stock market crash than something like this or this.

The other caution is that even when major news events do shift the polls, they sometimes have a half-life with the effects fading over time. These events may produce long-term and permanent effects on how voters see the candidates, but they often overshoot the mark in the close term. Recent examples include the uptrend in Mr. Obama’s approval ratings after the death of Osama bin Laden or the downtrend following the debt ceiling negotiations, both of which persisted for some weeks but then faded.

My conclusion:  This is going to be  close election.  Closer than in my opinion it should be.