A House Divided
Aggregate polling, i.e. a collection of polls averaged, forms the basis of the Huffington Post Pollster division’s attempts to rectify the reported vagaries and statistical biases of individual polls in order to present a more refined, and hence “truer” version of public opinion at a given time. However, even this attempt may be flawed insofar as each poll that is sampled, regardless of track record, (i.e. accuracy in predicting concrete results such as presidential election outcomes,) are equally rated and computed instead of being weighted based on past performance.
The purpose of this graphic therefore is to describe individual polling results in light of each poll’s accuracy during the last presidential election cycle in order to visualize the sweeping differences in reporting between a selection of polling companies and to show the wide variety of conclusions each poll draws as well as how polls with poorer track records are statistically influencing the overall Pollster API in a fashion that outweighs their historical record for accuracy.
This may all a big game, played out over the backdrop of very serious issues confronting the American public. And so we may well ask, why?
There are two possible approaches to this question.
1.) Try to follow Hanlon’s (or Heinlein’s) Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity,” or;
2.) There really is something afoot, a blatant manipulation of polling data in order to serve a particular political purpose (this is the ultimate in gamesmanship, and therefore the reason for the game-board approach to this infographic). In a series of nine stories in 1980 on “Crucial States” – battleground states as they are known today – the New York Times repeatedly told readers then-President Carter was in a close and decidedly winnable race with the former California governor. And used polling data from the New York Times/CBS polls to back up its stories. Four years later, it was the Washington Post that played the polling game – and when called out by Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins “about his paper’s lousy polling methodology,” famous Post editor Ben Bradlee called his paper’s polling an “in-kind contribution to the Mondale campaign.”* Mondale, of course, being then-President Reagan’s 1984 opponent and Carter’s vice president. All of which will doubtless serve as a reminder of just how blatantly polling data can be manipulated by the media – used essentially as a political weapon to support the cause of the moment, whether Jimmy Carter in 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984 – or Barack Obama in 2012.**
* Ed Rollins, Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms: My Life in American Politics.
** How Carter Beat Reagan, Jeffrey Lord, American Spectator