Polls Apart

There's no worse time for polling than convention season.

What pollsters measure - or try to measure - seems to change from day today, if not even faster.

Consider the polls conducted between Thursday, August 10 and Sunday, August 13, after Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman was named as Al Gore's running mate but before the start of the Democratic Convention. In all those polls, more voters supported Republican George W. Bush than Democrat Gore, but the margin ranged from just three points to as many as many as sixteen points in some polls.

Skeptics will probably take these apparent discrepancies to dismiss polls entirely. Even the political junkies who follow polls extensively and cite every one as the latest campaign truth might stop placing blind confidence in these measurements - at least for a while.

But the dramatic variety of poll results is almost normal for this time in a campaign. Even in the wake of the successful Republican Convention and the news coverage that accompanied it, less than a third of all registered voters said they were paying a lot of attention to the presidential campaign. And among that same group of voters, the percentage dropped to 26 percent a week after the convention ended.

It's also late summer - a time when last-minute vacations get taken, when parents start thinking about back-to-school sales, before the pace quickens in the fall. People are harder to reach, so samples may differ from each other more than usual. And when they are interviewed, they may not treat the questions and answers as seriously as they will when the election is closer.

Consequently, small differences in polling methods - selection process, question order, ways of handling undecided voters - can make an unusual amount of difference.

So we find from the polls that:

  • Forcing undecided voters to make a choice right now benefits George W. Bush. Polls with the closest margins between Bush and Gore also have the highest percentage of undecided voters.
  • Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan do better when the four-way horserace question comes after voters are first asked to choose between Bush and Gore. Voters like to have a second opportunity to make a choice.
  • The more stringent the requirements a pollster imposes on determining whether someone is a "likely" voter or not, the wider the Bush margin. That's because right after the end of the GOP Convention the most attentive voters were more likely to be Republican.
Polls these days also differ on whether or not they include the vice presidential choices along with the presidential nominees, though it is so far unclear what the impact of this will be on the choices respondents make in November.

So at least for a few more weeks, the next day's results - or the next poll's - might look very different. Poll watchers should take a deep breath and wait a while. When the leaves hav turned, more voters will turn their attention to what will happen in November.