Magical Mystery Polls and the Changing Demographics of America


On the eve of the 2012 US election, there seems to be magic and mystery surrounding the scientific polls. Nobody seems quite certain about divining the future, with results inching back and forth – Romney ahead last week, Obama catching up this week – all within the margin of error.

In what has turned into a ‘cliff-hanger’ of an election, a skirmish seems to have broken out too between different polling experts. Not surprisingly, lines have been drawn along party lines; although, both the science and art of statistics suggests everyone who claims to be an ‘expert’ can retrofit their predictions to the minds of the voters as long as you’re within the margin of error; or at least you have the professional wiggle room (+/- 3%) to back out if you were not as accurate or precise as you had hoped.

Polls Do Not Agree On Who Is Ahead

Rasmussen and Gallup polls have favored Mitt Romney, while all other tracking polls suggest the President will win by a hair. Gallup’s daily tracking poll has had Mitt Romney ahead by a significant margin, 6% points, in a random sample of likely voters until they had to abruptly shut down data collection due to the super storm Sandy. After the storm, the gap seems to have narrowed somewhat, but Gallup still gives Romney the edge.

Rasmussen poll is led by a committed Republican pollster, who has shown a lead for Romney for many months in the national-level general election. The difference between Rasmussen and Gallup versus the rest of the polls has been significant, that is, outside the margin of error, which led Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Beast to conclude:

“So you either believe that Romney has held the national lead 100 percent of the time since September 1; or you believe that Obama has had the lead for 86 percent of the time since September 1. Obviously, the two models cannot both be true.”

Demographics And Political Identification

The differences may be rooted in political identification and the changing demographics of America. Gallup’s sampling composition reports 36% Republicans, 35% Democrats, and 29% Independents. “The poll of 705 other polls shows party identification as 29% Republican; 36% Democrat; and 31% Independent. What has happened since the summer is a sharp drop in the ‘Independent’ category – giving gains to Democrats and Republicans pretty evenly, with the Democrats gaining a tiny bit more,” according to Sullivan.

What Sullivan does not mention, but seems fully aware of, is that party affiliation in this election is deeply nested with ethnicity and race, where 96% of African Americans, who largely tend to be democratic, are going to vote for the president. Similarly, a large majority of Hispanic Americans are going to vote for the president due to immigration policies. The growing segment of Asian American voters seems to be backing the Democrats as well, based on a recent survey.

Geraldo Rivera, an investigative journalist and now a morning talk show host, said while he is endorsing Romney-Ryan due to their economic policies, he is going to vote for Obama-Biden because the president’s immigration policy is so close to his heart.

In other words, a slight upsurge of one party or a demographic group at the polls can register a major change at the ballot box, especially, with the 24/7 news cycle, cable news coverage and an electorate that is wired to the Internet and I-phones. Different segments of the population may be connected to the electoral process in varying degrees, especially if they do not have access to landlines, cell phones, and newer means of social media.

Disparity Due To Poll Weighting

The latest non-partisan Pew poll suggests that the president has a 3% point edge among likely voters, Obama 50% and Romney 47%. Interestingly, the Pew sample has proportionally less Republicans and more Democrats when compared to the Gallup sample.

The disparity in results may also be due to different methods of weighting of samples. Conservatives keep claiming that polls have a liberal bias; they have more registered Democrats than Republicans. A newly constructed site, UnSkewed Polls, suggests when the polls are weighted correctly, Romney has a 3.5% edge over Obama (51.6% to 47.8%).

UnSkewed Polls seems closer to Rasmussen in terms of the sample composition with more Republican likely voters. But what are they weighting the sample to – the US Census data of the racial and ethnic makeup of the country which is rapidly changing or some electoral database from previous elections?

Meta Poll, Averaging Trusted Polls

One way out of the confusion may be to create a meta-poll of all the polls, which is what the RCP national average does, under the guidance of the RealClearPolitics editorial team. It “averages credible, relevant election polls, to give a more consistent and accurate read of where the election is headed.” Since it creates an overall average of all the relevant polls, by design it minimizes differences; hence the election is even much more difficult to call as per the RCP average (Obama 48.8%, Romney 48.1%).

At the state level, where the electoral votes are gathered, the president seems to have an edge according to a large number of pollsters. The president seems to be consistently leading with a small margin in swing states of Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Virginia, New Hampshire, and Nevada, while Romney seems ahead in Florida, North Carolina, and Colorado.

“President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are essentially tied on the eve of Election Day, but the Democrat has a slight edge in some of the pivotal states where the election will be decided,” according to Reuters/Ipsos polling released on Monday.

Futures Trading Predictions

Predictably, the futures trading sites, such as InTrade and Iowa Electronic Market (IEM), have also given the president an edge. InTrade has been predicting that Obama has a 67% likelihood of winning, while Romney 33%. Likewise, IEM has been predicting for almost a year that Obama will snatch a narrow victory (51% vs. 49%) in a very close election.

Whoever predicts this election accurately, it will be because they grasped the changing demographic reality of America. As the Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said today, “If we lose this election, there is only one explanation – Demographics.”

Dinesh Sharma is the author of ‘Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President,’ which was rated as a Top 10 Black history book for 2012 and ‘Crossroads of Leadership: Globalization and American Exceptionalism in the Obama Presidency.’