We go through this every election cycle, but it's worth repeating: many polls are unreliable. But it's impossible to know which ones.
Most news organizations lead their political coverage with poll results, as if that's news, and breathlessly try to spin useful information out of a blizzard of numbers. Very few of them bother to figure out exactly how flimsy some of the polling methods are.
There's a new ABC/Washington Post poll out. It "reports" that Gingrich and Romney are each at 30%. It "reports" that President Obama's approval numbers are up.
It surveyed about 1000 people. Roger Simon, in Politico, expands:
Most people do not read the fine print. Just as most people, including most journalists, have no idea what the “margin of sampling error” really means, though most good polls tell us that. (The Post-ABC margin was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for all adults.)
As I said, this poll has a very good reputation and I “believe” the results in that I believe they were calculated carefully and (unlike some partisan or campaign polls) without any agenda.
But in the vast, murky world known as reality, are Gingrich and Mitt Romney really tied 30-30? And, if they are, what different does it make? The primary is not a national contest, but a series of state contests by which the winning candidate amasses a majority of the approximately 2,288 pledged and unpledged delegates to the Republican National Convention.
Does Obama really lead Gingrich by 8 percentage points in a (currently) imaginary matchup?
I dunno. Sounds right to me. But I am an even smaller sample than 0.0003 percent.
Gingrich’s drop in the polls — one shows him in third place in Iowa behind Ron Paul and Romney — and Obama’s rise have become big media talking points over the past few days.
There is little real political analysis anymore. Instead, there are journalists who read polls and try to explain the results: Newt’s drop? Attack ads by his opponents are damaging him, people are learning more about him and don’t like what they are learning.
Obama’s rise? The 21st paragraph of a sidebar to the Post-ABC poll contains a figure that may be of critical importance: “The new survey finds that most Americans are optimistic about their personal finances, even though gloom continues about prospects for the national economy.”
People who are personally optimistic are the kind of people who do not change horsesmidstream, especially if they feel the stream is strewn with rocks.
Is this how “most Americans” — based on a survey of 1,005 of them — really feel?
A lot of political arguments, these days, tend to center around poll numbers. You hear it on Fox News and CNN and the Sunday talk shows -- even around the dinner table -- people confidently asserting what the American people think, feel, will or won't stand for.
It's witchcraft. It's voodoo. And it's a terrible way to run for president, make an argument, or settle a dispute.
But it's all we've got.