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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field / CAMPAIGN 2012

Republicans to Pollsters: Too Many Democrats In Your Surveys

Party composition has become a conservative flashpoint, but pollsters say it reflects reality.

Mitt Romney at a rally Sept. 21 in Las Vegas. Some Republicans say polls with too many Democrats underestimate his support.(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

photo of Steven Shepard
September 25, 2012

It has become a recurring refrain among some Republican pundits and observers each time a new poll shows President Obama or downballot Democrats doing well: Check the party composition.

Critics allege that pollsters are interviewing too many Democrats -- and too few Republicans or independents -- and artificially inflating the Democratic candidates' performance. Pollsters counter that the results they are finding reflect slight changes in public sentiment -- and, moreover, adjusting their polls to match arbitrary party-identification targets would be unscientific.

Unlike race, gender or age, all demographic traits for which pollsters weight their samples, party identification is considered an attitude that pollsters say they should be measuring. When party identification numbers change, it's an indication of deeper political change that a poll can spot.

 

"If a pollster weights by party ID, they are substituting their own judgment as to what the electorate is going to look like. It's not scientific," said Doug Schwartz, the director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, which doesn't weight its surveys by party identification.

The debate has been amplified as the pace of public polling has accelerated after party conventions. Pollsters are finding diverging results, with consumers of political media left to decide which surveys better reflect the reality on the ground -- or to accept the polls most favorable to their partisan leanings. New, less expensive methods for taking polls have led to a proliferation of surveys with varying results, so both sides have ample data to fit their desired narrative.

Gripes about the party-ID composition of poll samples are certainly not new: Eight years ago, Democrats were claiming polls showing a surge in Republican identification did not accurately reflect the makeup of the electorate.

Now, it's Republicans making the case their voters are undersampled.

Schwartz, whose institute conducts polls in battleground states for CBS News and The New York Times, asserts that pollsters who weight according to party identification could miss the sorts of important shifts in the electorate that could be determinative.

"A good example for why pollsters shouldn't weight by party ID is if you look at the 2008 presidential election and compared it to the 2004 presidential election, there was a 7-point change in the party ID gap," Schwartz said. Democrats and Republicans represented equal portions of the 2004 electorate, according to exit polls. But, in 2008, the percentage of the electorate identifying as Democrats increased by 2 percentage points, to 39 percent, while Republicans dropped 5 points, to 32 percent.

Asked specifically about GOP complaints regarding the party-ID composition of public surveys, Schwartz said: "They're the ones trailing in our swing-state polls."

"There are more people who want to identify with the Democratic Party right now than the Republican Party," he added.

Many Republicans, however, think pollsters are wrong to assume their results, which in some cases mirror the 2008 electorate, are accurate.

"Far too many of the public and media polls have set their likely voter screens and models to something looking more optimistic than the 2008 turnout model," GOP consultant Rick Wilson wrote in Sunday's New York Daily News, "which even Obama's most dedicated partisans think is highly unlikely."

John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster and consultant to GOP candidates, told the conservative National Review last week that Democrats are lobbying media pollsters "to weight their surveys to emulate the 2008 Democrat-heavy models."

"The intended effect is to suppress Republican turnout through media polling bias," McLaughlin said.

Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is unconvinced. "Why would pollsters want to look inaccurate?" Miringoff asked rhetorically in a phone interview.

Miringoff, who is conducting three battleground-state polls each week for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, called the focus on party identification "too narrow."

"It's an easy target in a sense because you can look at the last [election], see the difference and jump on board," he said. Marist, like Quinnipiac, does not weight its results according to party ID.

Not every Republican pollster finds fault with the publicly-available surveys. Dan Judy, vice president of North Star Opinion Research in Alexandria, Va., told National Journal, "A lot of the media organizations this cycle seem to have gotten better."

"Most of the media polls are good, professional polls," Judy added, "in terms of making sure that the way their samples are constructed are fairly consistent."

But the GOP narrative that most public surveys are biased endures. On Monday, the news website Buzzfeed interviewed a Virginia-based blogger who re-weights public polls to reflect the partisan trends reported by automated pollster Rasmussen Reports. Dean Chambers, the blogger, then presents the adjusted data in charts on his website, unskewedpolls.com.

As of late Monday, Chambers' website claimed that an average of polls conducted since Labor Day show Mitt Romney leading Obama, 52 percent to 44 percent. The website and its findings were trumpeted on the Drudge Report, the conservative-leaning news-aggregation site that has tended to highlight polls more favorable to Romney and less favorable to the president.

The pollsters continue to stand by their results, but the complaints are nevertheless getting through. Marist's Miringoff, for instance, was lambasted by conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt earlier this month over a poll in Hewitt's native Ohio that the radio jock deemed "biased" for its 10-point party-ID advantage for Democrats. Miringoff admitted to National Journal that he is now taking note of the party-identification results in the polls he is conducting.

"I look at our party-ID spread because I want to anticipate the reaction," he said. He added: "I guess it makes for good pundit sport at this point."

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