Professor King: Aggregate Polls Give Better Picture of Election Day

Tuesday, 09 Oct 2012 05:40 PM

By Patrick Hobin and John Bachman

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This year’s election will be very close, most people are just living their lives and not thinking about the election and polls in aggregate give a better picture of reality than individual polls, Harvard University Professor Gary King told Newsmax TV.

King, director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science and an expert on polls and statistics, said polls are not necessarily a good measure of what happens on Election Day because people are still gathering information about the candidates.

“There’s a lot of things that go into the polls,” he said. “Moreover, the polls are measures of what’s happening right now. What we really want to know is what’s going to happen on Election Day and the polls are not necessarily a good measure of that. Sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not.

"The problem is that the polls vary a lot over time and what happens, we know from year to year, is that eventually they converge to where people should be. But individuals, when you watch them, don’t vary anywhere near as much as the polls. For example, how many conservative Republicans do you know that have switched to becoming liberal Democrats and back to conservative Republicans during the same election campaign? It just doesn’t happen.”

He continued, “But, nevertheless, you watch the polls going up and down over the course of the campaign. So what’s happening? Why is that? Why are the aggregates varying so much when individuals are relatively stable? So, that’s a puzzle but political scientists actually have a relatively secure answer to that question,” he said.

“What happens is all of us are very interested in what’s going to happen on Election Day but most people out there, they’re actually living their lives,” King went on. “They’re doing whatever they’re doing. They haven’t necessarily gathered as much information as they need to make the decision that they’re going to make on Election Day. And there’s no reason in the world why they need to make it by today. They only need to make it by Election Day. So the polls go up and down because they haven’t gathered enough information. Sometimes there’s a positive media event for one of the candidates and the polls go up a little bit because the people not paying that much attention find that candidate a little more attractive. But if that candidate is not in the interests of that voter, then they’re going to end up voting for a different candidate.”

Paying attention to selective polls will yield a biased view of what’s going on, King said.

“There’s a lot of polls that come out, now, almost every day. So, it certainly doesn’t make sense to take the one poll that’s the farthest from your preferred outcome and dismiss that,” he said.

“So, right now, there’s a one big outlier poll and that’s the Pew Poll favoring Romney. I don’t think I would dismiss that but I don’t think I would dismiss the one all the way on the other end of the continuum. Polls work by selecting a random selection people from the United States population. We expect some of them to be outliers. Some of them certainly will be outliers. If we pay attention to them selectively, we’re going to get a biased answer."

Polls that are aggregate are “probably better” than individual polls, he said.

“Some of the polls have some biases. They are all doing something that is very difficult. It turns out conceptually very easy to randomly select a group of individuals from the United States population where everybody has an equal probability of selection,” he said.

“That’s what the polls need to do. But actually, it turns out to be very difficult. If you select somebody that’s very likely to vote, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily going to answer your questions when you get them on the phone and you may not even get them on the phone,” King said.

“So waiving people appropriately so that it turns out right – the pollsters are working very hard to get this right and to deal with technological changes like whether you’re going to pay for the call on your cellphone minutes when a pollster calls you. And there’s variability across the polling organizations and there’s variability within any one over time.”

Usually, political scientists can predict the outcome of the U.S. presidential election popular vote within a few percentage points but this year the race is very close, he said.

“Political scientists have a pretty good idea of what the popular vote’s going to be within a few percentage points from about now all the way until the election,” King said. “But plus or minus a few percentage points doesn’t really help tell you exactly who’s going to be president when the prediction is right about 50 percent.”

“So, with what goes into these things, it’s all of the things that you would want people to actually pay attention to: it’s the economic circumstances of the country; it’s the ideological positions of the candidates relative to the ideological positions of the voters; it’s the issues that matter to them; it’s what states the presidential and vice-presidential candidates are from; and it’s various opinions on the issues of the day. Those are the kinds of things that we would actually want Americans to pay attention to, not whether some candidate has a gaffe on a Tuesday morning saying something silly,” he said.

King continued: “We don’t want to decide, in all likelihood, who’s going to be the next president of the United States based upon some offhand remark. And it turns out that most of the time that’s actually the way voters end up deciding. They base their decisions on real facts.”

The contest between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama “is a very close election,” King said. “And most of the forecasts, separate from the polls, and most of the polls themselves have it as very close. So, in some sense, we know a tremendous amount and, at the same time, we don’t, right? So it would be a stunning surprise if one of the candidates won by 15 percentage points. That’s just not going to happen.”

“With very high probability that’s not going to happen,” he continued. “Of course, it could happen but it’s just extremely unlikely. It’s extremely unlikely for all of the reasons I just listed. On the other hand, I can’t tell you for sure which candidates going to win. If the prediction were that one candidate was going to be ahead by five or ten percentage points and that was plus or minus two percentage points, then we would know who’s going to win. So I can’t tell you exactly who’s going to win because the public is so evenly divided.”

Turning to the media, King said the fact that there are more ways to obtain information about candidates doesn’t change the fact that people wind up voting for the candidate “that makes sense” to them.

“What the media provides and social media provides is information. So what the election campaign does is it educated voters,” he said. “It’s not that they’re sitting there passively but it provides the information so that voters can go collect all of the knowledge they need to wind up in the place where it make sense for them to vote. We wind up voting for the candidate that makes sense and if there’s more information and more sources of information, then they can get to a place where they should be.”

The medium, he said, provides the message but “it’s not the message itself” and voters will use what they have available, whether it’s just the radio or the Internet.

‘We’re informed in different ways,” he said. “Voters are still going to get their information. They managed to get the information when there was pretty much only newspapers and they managed to get information when there radio and when there was television and now we have social media and websites and many other sources of information. And the candidates, moreover, they’re the ones that are trying to educate the voters. And they’re going to use whatever technology is available to them to reach the voters.”

He concluded: “So there’s new technologies available today that weren’t around four or eight years ago and they’re going to use those and we see them using those and, eventually, both candidates are going to push as hard as they can and the really neat thing about the American political system, particularly at the presidential level, is that people end up voting for the candidate that makes the most sense. And because of that we know ahead of time where a lot of them will end up and they will eventually figure that out themselves.”


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