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Susan Estrich
12 Feb 2016
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10 Feb 2016
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5 Feb 2016
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Polls Don't Vote


That's what Vice President Walter Mondale used to say at every stop in the closing days of the campaign. "Polls don't vote. People vote."

The only problem, of course, is that polls do measure people's preferences, typically with greater accuracy in general elections than in primaries and caucuses, where it is more difficult to predict what the universe of voters will look like. So when you're down in the polls as the election is approaching, it generally means that you're down.

In recent days, there has been a spate of stories about so-called "biased" polls — biased against Mitt Romney.

The national polls show a close race within the margin of error. State by state polls show President Obama with a somewhat larger margin in key states, but with Romney still in striking distance. The race, in short, is far from over, and anyone who thinks otherwise has never been around races that really were over (Mondale/Reagan) or felt the bottom fall out of a campaign because of a bad debate (Reagan/Carter; Dukakis/Bush).

So what's with this business about biased polls?

Advocacy groups often generate biased polls to support their position, aid fundraising, influence policy and the like. On abortion, for instance, I used to say — and I think it is still true — that if you let me write the poll, it will show the country to be overwhelmingly pro-choice. For instance, do you think that when it comes to private and personal decisions such as control over a woman's body, the government should make that choice or the woman and her family, in consultation with her doctor, should make it? Guess who wins. On the other hand, do you think abortion should be available as a form of birth control? Not so fast. Should children who are the victims of rape and incest be required to bear the child of their rapist? Nope. Is it right for people to use abortion as a form of sex-selection? Nope.

"Push polls" involve the same sort of game, although no one even pretends that they're really polls. "Mitt Romney thinks people who receive Medicare are 'victims' who don't take personal responsibility.

Knowing that, Mrs. Senior Citizen, are you more or less likely to support Mr. Romney?" Less. "Barack Obama's former minister Rev. Jeremiah Wright said in 2009 that he hadn't spoken to the president because 'them Jews aren't going to let him talk to me.' Knowing that, Mr. Jewish Voter, are you more or less likely to support the president?" Less.

But that isn't how horse race polls are conducted. The big issue in horse race polls is weighting the poll so it reflects the demographics of what the voter pool will look like. You don't want to have too many young people, too few seniors or whatever, because if you do, your results will be wrong. When you look at similar national polls with differing results, it's usually because of slight variations in how they are predicting who will actually turn out. And even the best poll is a snapshot, not a prediction. It tells you where voters are today, not where they'll be on November 6.

That's why virtually every horse race question is followed by one about just how sure you are. Are you certain you are going to vote for X? In this race, more than 90 percent of each candidate's supporters say they won't change their minds, which is a very high number and a reflection of a very polarized electorate.

It's also why people pay so much attention to the non-horse race measures. If you're the incumbent, you want to see people feeling confident (or more confident than they were last month) about their economic situation. Do you think the country is on the right track or the wrong track? The right track is where the incumbent obviously wants people to be. Do you think the candidate cares about or understands the problems of people like you? Too many nos means trouble.

At the end of the day, the most important issue for any pollster worth paying attention to is not whether their poll helps or hurts the candidate they (secretly or not so secretly) favor. It's whether it's right.

Always believe your pollster when he gives you bad news, the late pollster Tubby Harrison used to say. For my part, I always believe the worst poll. The easiest way to lose is to believe you've won when the fat lady hasn't even started humming.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



12 Comments | Post Comment
If you wrote this column for your daughters 6th grade social studies class, then well done and she deserves an A for having such an awesome mommy. However if your audience was supposed to be adults with at least some interest and knowledge of politics, then this provides no new informations. This was not a slow newsweek and I know I'm not the only one who gets tired of reading 6 different articles about one particular event, but could you write about something other than the absolute basics.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Tue Oct 2, 2012 5:29 PM
Re: Chris McCoy
You are correct. There is no new information here for those of us who understand how polls (and statistics in general) work. The information provided, however, is important to those who have not learned it before and should be recycled every few years so that new people can be introduced to the concepts. Those who are curious can pursue further knowledge.

It takes a little work to acquire knowledge, but it is worth the effort to avoid living in fear and ignorance.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Paul M. Petkovsek
Wed Oct 3, 2012 3:33 AM
Polls Don't Vote: true but the moochers, the parasites, the hand out seekers are permitted to vote and do vote.

Whenever one party or president consistently robs Peter (the producers) to pay or to redistribute earned wealth of Peter to Paul ( the moochers including the public sector unions, teachers et al) that party or president can always count on the vote of Paul.

The moochers will always vote themselves an unearned living at the expense of the producers. This is the mechanism by which the left has planne to (and unless the producers wake up, will succeed) in destroying this once great Republic.

Get the thief in chief out of the Whitehouse.
Comment: #3
Posted by: joseph wright
Wed Oct 3, 2012 5:09 AM
I am always amazed at how many people think that THEIR right to vote should NEVER be Questioned but that somehow the lower classes, and moochers as they call them should NOT be allowed to vote. The attempts at voter suppression in many states this year are an appallingly naked attempt to disenfranchise voters. This is not something new. Just after the CIVIL WAR, Poll taxes and voter IQ tests were just some of the methods usede to deny the vote to the so-called lesser classes. Mark Twain the humorist ans satirist, wrote a very concise and insightful short story about the attempt to suppress votes. It is a two page story entitled THE CURIOUS STATE OF GONDOUR and you can find it on-line. It is one of the best treatises on the theory of one-man, one vote that has every been written. And thank God that our concept of democracy now makes it one man one vote coupled with one woman one vote. Everyone has an equal right to vote. Anyone who opposes that is not a true believer in the United States Constitution and all the amendments.
I was glad to see that the judge in Pennsylvania struck the Voter ID law down in Pennsylvania as this was not an attempt to stop voter fraud but a naked attempt to disenfranchise many voters. It is ironic that the voter photo ID bill would have effectively disenfranchised the Amish voters who have voted as a block for Republicans in every election since they voted against Kennedy because of his religion.
I guess that I am part of the moocher class as I live on my Social Security and the dividends from my ionvestments but I worked hard to earn both and I feel no shame about that work in my younger years. How sad that someone would think that I do not deserve the right to vote simply because I am now basically retired (semi-retired more accurately)
Comment: #4
Posted by: robert lipka
Wed Oct 3, 2012 9:19 AM
With the emergance of "Obama phone lady", perhaps voter IQ tests were a good idea. There are Obama voters out there who don't even know who he's running against or anything about anyones platform. I'm just kidding about the IQ tests, but I'm dead serious about many Obama voters being totally ignorant about whats going on.
Anyhow, Robert of course you're not a moocher. You mentioned earlier about investing in rare coins and now about having investments. Those are signs of a smart individual. You paid into social security and planned your retirement around it. Thats something the younger generation cannot do. People never should have been forced into it in the first place and there should be an opt-out option put into it immediatly so people like me who have more faith in the free market than the government, can allocate their resources accordingly.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Wed Oct 3, 2012 11:39 AM
Dear Chris.
I too would have wanted to opt out of Social Security as a young person. Who wouldnt?? But therein liesw the problem. If everyone opted out, the program would die and then as people got older and suddenly NEEDED the benefits, where would they come from. Who would feed the starving? We are very lucky now not to have the disaster of the Great depression upon us. One of the things that prevents that is that so many of our seniors get their social security checks each month and then spread that money around...and we dont have to worry about them starving.
I was sad to read that after the Soviet Union bankrupted itself waging the Afghanistan war that Russian senior citizens were forced to beg in the streets for food money when their government pensions were ended. The social Security system in our country not only benefits our seniors but every other business that depends on them for their income. When that happened with the Russians, I saw a politician on TV(cant remember who) stating that we should offer statehood to the Russians, take them into our United States and that would solve a lot of problems. I laughed when I heard that statement and thought it was crazy......but as I have thought about what the guy proposed, I have come to think,,,,Man how many problems that would solve. We would not longer have the Russians as enemies and the American people would have control of foreign policy without interfearance from Russia. God how useful that would be today in Syria or as regards missles in Europe??? It was outside the box thinking but in an ever emerging world that some Bilderbergers like to call the NEW WORLD ORDER, we have to adapt and consider new political structuring around the world. I , for one would like to accept Brazil as a member of the United States of America. Examine the rapid growth of Brazil economically and how they have accomplished that and it is a lesson in the modern world economy. Brazil wastes NO money on a huge military. They place their future solidly on building a manufacturing and trading economy. Other countries of the world will protect Brazil because they NEED Brazil as a trading partner. Just some thoughts from an old moocher who wishes he had another lifetime left just to see the future that is coming for a new generation of forward thinkers Ah the youth of this world have a treasure that I can never buy. TIME
Comment: #6
Posted by: robert lipka
Wed Oct 3, 2012 12:24 PM
Public employees are moochers? They pay their share of taxes along with everybody that works for a living. The real moochers are the parasitic bankers that charge usery rates on credit cards and pay less than 1% on Grandma's savings.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Paul M. Petkovsek
Wed Oct 3, 2012 12:36 PM
Robert, I'm sure many people would remain in the system. There has to be plenty of people out there that still have faith that the government can manage programs, otherwise there would be no democratic party. Letting people opt out and reforming the system as needed seems like a much more fair option than your generation collecting and leaving mine with the bill and nothing in the coffers. Its the younger people that are the victims of this giant ponsi scheme.
Paul people have to know what they sign up for with credit cards. Grandma needs to take responsibility and read the terms before signing up. If she can't, then she'd better get someone else to handle her money. Bankers can't take advantage of you if you don't let them. Government on the other hand can screw you 5 ways from sunday and there is not a damn thing you can do about it.
Comment: #8
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Wed Oct 3, 2012 1:18 PM
Re: Paul M. Petkovsek
Yes particularly when they retire at 50 for a day, collect pension, get re employed and start on another pension creating boondoggle all at the tax payers expense. That is mooching of the first order that is bankrupting the States.
No one forces you to keep a balance on credit cards. That is the height of folly . Still what can one expect ?

Re Lipka
There was no suggestion that the moochers should be disenfranchised just an observation that their vote will always go to whosoever promises the most handouts at the expense of others. Only you know if you are of the moocher recipient class or not. What is certain however is that given your past defense and support of the boy Barack you are one of the idiot class. It was your boy that expected everyone to have some skin in the game. Tell me just what skin do those who contribute nothing but simply take have in the game. Answer none yet it is undeniable they may vote and do vote themselves a parasitic lifestyle at my expense.
Comment: #9
Posted by: joseph wright
Wed Oct 3, 2012 1:22 PM
I'm not certain how this discuss turned to voter ID, but since it has I'll put my 2 cents in.

During a recent local election, I presented myself at the polls and asked for a ballot. I gave the officials (Who didn't know me from Adam) only my name and address. They gave me a ballot. When I asked how they knew I was who I said I was they replied, "We trust you".

This amazing answer (and the general method of polling) made it quite clear to me that, if I had wanted too and with a little background work, I could have committed voter fraud multiple times and it would have gone completely undetected. If you aren't looking for a specific type of activity and have no safeguards against it, how can you say authoritatively it never occurs?

Do I believe voter fraud is common? Probably not. However, without some type of safeguards, there is absolutely no protection against it. As a voter, I want a system that I'm confident has a low possibility of voter fraud.

In this regard, is asking for some ID too much to ask? I can't visit my doctor in this state without showing a photo ID, yet I can just wander into a polling place with one little rehearsed factoid and get a ballot. With the rights of citizenship (like voting) come some responsibilities. One such responsibilty is to conduct yourself in a fashion that ensures your ballot isn't being stolen. No citizen who takes his/her rights seriously could object to a minor requirement like presenting a valid ID at the polling place. If you are serious about voting, you'll get the proper ID.

It will probably require a FL-2000 type debacle to crystallize this issue. Somewhere a Republican will get elected based on a handful of votes and the questions about voter fraud will be raised. I guess then the Dems will then have to live with the consequences of 'trusting' everyone.

As an aside to Ms. Estrich, your article was a nice primer on polling and statistics. It is a topic that is counter intuitive to most of the public.
Comment: #10
Posted by: Old Navy
Thu Oct 4, 2012 3:49 AM
A rout, Agincourt, Little Big Horn, a masacre, a slaughter LOL !

Little boy barack, the amateur, the empty suit, the empty chair, the empty podium, the sulking, slinking, petulant
brat, for whom the media covered for four years was tested and found absent, tested and found wanting, tested and failed miserably and in trying to run from his abysmal record had to whine and plead with Leher to please move on to another subject.

He got his miserable a$$ handed to him last night. LOl ! What a fool ! What a fraud ! What a waste of space ! What a total failure he is ! He even managed to out Carter, Carter. LOL again.

Move out now barry boy and let the adult take over.

Do it now barry boy. End the utter embarrassment that you are and do it for America !

Comment: #11
Posted by: joseph wright
Thu Oct 4, 2012 11:19 AM
In a poll of registered voters 67% said Romney won the debate; 23% said Obama won.

-OBAMA: My dog ate my notes and then I ate my dog.
-It turned out that Romney actually WAS debating an empty chair.
-Even though it was their anniversary, Michelle went home with Romney last night.
-Romney's garbage man now even says he's voting for him.
Comment: #12
Posted by: Cowboy Jay
Thu Oct 4, 2012 1:35 PM
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