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How pollsters hurt pundits


The Washington Post's resident poll expert Jon Cohen explains why there's so little good information on what the Massachusetts election "means."

Everyone has a theory. But there is precious little in the way of concrete data to support any particular explanation -- because few polls of the more than a dozen polls of this race have even sought one -- suggesting that what's about to happen in Massachusetts is still difficult to understand, and likely to remain so.

Only one of Monday's five publicly released Massachusetts Senate polls asked prospective voters anything beyond their ballot preference, opinion of the candidates and a few demographics.[...]

Good survey research clarifies, providing data about "why" prospective voters make choices, both in terms of whether they will vote and how they will cast their ballots. Producing a solitary horse-race number is essentially a publicity stunt. That number may end up hitting the mark, but without any explanatory information behind it, it's of no value to understanding the election.

Analysis of the battle for Massachusetts is hampered not only by the shallowness of many of the pre-election polls, but also because there is no Election Day exit poll. Without these analytical mainstays, pundits of various stripes are free to spin to their hearts' content about what this election means.

He says that like it's a bad thing. Sounds to me like pundits should be paying pollsters to stay out of these races.

Photo credit: Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 20, 2010; 1:07 PM ET
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Celinda Lake had to do the attitudinal work because she was working for Coakley. Her results are fascinating -- I excerpted some of it here:

Hint: they read a lot like Ezra's opinion that the Dems have broken their "bargain" with the voters.

Posted by: janinsanfran | January 20, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

I don't believe there are any lessons regarding national politics here. As Celina Lake says, voters actually agreed with Coakley more than Brown on issues.

Coakley was up by 20 points in the polls as late as January 1st. She lost because she ran a poor campaign, made a lot of gaffs, and because she was a drab and boring candidate running against an candidate with high personal appeal. There was no significant change in issues or voter attitudes over the short period during which Coakley imploded.

The voters saw the candidates and liked one and came to dislike and disrespect the other. In politics, the personal can trump the issues. Democrats in many places (please see the California governor's races during the oughts) have trouble getting that.

The take away here is find good candidates and the issues have a way of working themselves out. Barack Obama is himself an example of this, and should be smart enough to figure that out this time.

Posted by: PatS2 | January 20, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

The Democratic base did not turn out. If you're a Democrat and you're not turning out the base in Massachusetts, then something is wrong somewhere.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 20, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

I like Ezra's point about confidence (a later post than this). Voters are attracted to a confident candidate.

That's why they can pronounce a woman who doesn't know who Curt Schilling is is "unelectable," while viewing a woman who doesn't know what the Fed does (and why taxing it is a laughable idea) is presidential material.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | January 20, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

Adding a lot of "why" questions makes it harder to create an unbiased questionnaire and easier to end up with something that looks like a push poll. Not to say it shouldn't be done. We should just be aware than some polls are more difficult(and ultimately more expensive) than others.

Posted by: zosima | January 20, 2010 6:12 PM | Report abuse

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