Saturday, October 27, 2012

Somebody's Reputation as a Pollster is Going to Be Destroyed After This Election!

Ostrich Plumes for JEB Stuart's Hat
Who can you trust when it comes to predicting who is going to win the White House this November?

After all, people used to burn witches at the stake who professed to be able to 'see the future'.  Biblical prohibitions against divination prevented the soothsayers from practicing in or near places of worship.

Are modern-day pollsters nothing more than modern-day witches and soothsayers?

You gotta wonder in some cases.

Anyway, there are now hundreds of polls being taken on a daily basis around the nation.  Based on what we have seen and heard over the past year, we have come to this inexorable conclusion:

'Some of them ain't going to be in business on November 7!'

We have Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight (total electoral votes) that was bought out by the New York Times 'confidently' predicting a '71% chance of President Obama winning re-election'.

Mr. Silver apparently is some sort of statistician and sabermetrician which I guess is something to do with the 'Moneyball' tactics that allowed the Oakland A's to find baseball players who were cheap to sign but when put together, would win pennants like they did this past year, for example.

Our concern with his method is that: A) He has only been doing this for like no time at all and B) Baseball ain't politics.

On the other hand, you have these guys out in Boulder, Colorado 'confidently predicting' a 'Romney Landslide' based pretty much solely on economic indicators such as the unemployment rate and various other basic business conditions leading up to an election.

That scares us more than a little bit because, well, the same reason: 'Politics ain't business!'

Politics is emotion, peer-to-peer pressure and friendships, psychoanalytical, impulsive, thoughtful, visual, audial and about 20 other things that baseball and business will just never be.

Intrade is a investing (betting) service where you can buy shares of your candidate and try to make money based on him/her winning.  If they lose, you lose everything you invested.

The theory here is that people who invest money make better informed decisions on who is going to win or not because, after all, 'if they are willing to bet their own money, they must be smarter than the average person!'

That is not necessarily always true, is it?  Look at the millions of smart rich people who invested in Wachovia Bank or any other financial institution prior to the meltdown in 2008.  Were they 'smarter' than the average person then?

'Want to know how to make a small fortune in the stock market?' goes the old adage. 'Start with a big one.'

InTrade has Obama with about a 60% chance of winning the White House again in November.  That is down significantly from about 70% before the first debate between Governor Romney and President Obama but still significantly above 50%.

Who can you trust when it comes to national polls?

The Gallup Poll is the oldest and most trusted poll in the nation.  As a result, you have to give them some deference because of their history that has been pretty much on the money election after election after election.  They now have Romney up by 5% nationwide and slightly ahead in the 10 battleground swing states.

George Gallup made his first prediction in 1936 when he used survey techniques to predict that 'FDR will beat Alf Landon in the Presidential Election!'

That sounds great until you realize that FDR beat Alf Landon like a drum, 523-8 in the Electoral College and won 46 out of the then-48 states of The United States of America.  Your grandma could have made that prediction...and she probably did.

But Gallup failed in 1948 to predict that Truman would beat Thomas Dewey so they have definitely not been 'perfect', have they?  NO ONE saw that coming except maybe President Truman and his wife Bess and daughter Margaret who played the piano so well.

Gallup went on to do a poll that showed Harry S Truman to be the least popular President in modern American history when he left office in 1952 with an approval rating of 22%.  Richard Nixon only got down to 24% approval when he resigned during Watergate in 1974.

So:  'Who can you trust when it comes to national polling?'

We have a couple of rules of thumb to go by when it comes to listening to anyone who purports to 'know what is going to happen' in any election:

1) Have they done it for a long time?
2) Have they predicted 'bad' things for the side or people they work for as well as the 'good' outcomes?

For our money, the only people in the polling business we listen to seriously are the pollsters at The Tarrance Group in Alexandria, Virginia.  We worked with them in multiple campaigns over the years and found them to be consistently consistent when it came to getting the plain facts so we could do something with it, both the good and the bad.

They were like the scout teams or the reconnaissance soldiers who went out in to the territory to scout out the opposition and the terrain.  General Robert E. Lee used General J.E.B Stuart in the same way: to ride around the Union Army with a huge ostrich plume in his hat and then report back to General Lee on the placement and strength of the enemy battalions and cannon.

General Stuart wore the huge red or white ostrich plume in his hat to show the Union Army where he was at any time and to goad them because he knew they could never catch him or his cavalry officers.

John McLaughlin of the McLaughlin Group is a close second.  The Gallup Poll is always something to take a look at. We also love to read anything we can get our hands on from John Morgan who is a demographer but another person we worked with closely in 1986 when he accurately predicted the vote totals for former Congressman Alex McMillan of Charlotte (NC-9) and his opponent D.G. Martin to within 1 or 2 votes...per precinct, not percentages.

We would recommend that you sign up to follow the Tarrance Group or John McLaughlin if you are serious about getting up-to-date information on what is going on in this campaign today or for the future.  They both have a general analysis section in their website from time-to-time but you can sign up for a more in-depth subscription if you really want to get into the weeds on any poll they may do.

You might as well get subscribed to one of these guys because after the election, many of the would-be 'experts' are going to be out of business because their predictions are going to be so wrong.  Nate Silver and Red State are so far apart in their predictions that it is like one of them is on Mars.

We'll know for sure on November 6, won't we?

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