U.S. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama gesture towards each other during the second U.S. presidential debate in Hempstead, New York, October 16, 2012. (Photo : Reuters)
New polls are out every day--every hour, it seems. The presidential candidates and their campaigns pay close attention to each one, regardless of its source or methodology.
But are the polls biased? Do some of them obfuscate the real data or leave it out altogether?
Both parties have said as much at times during this campaign. Republicans decried the polls after the Democratic National Convention in September, when it looked as if Obama would coast to reelection.
Now that Romney seems to finally be on top, it's the Democrats turn to cry foul.
"It's common," said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief at Gallup, the polling organization, speaking to The Hill.
"The campaigns have a war room-type mentality, and both campaigns feel the need to quickly jump on any news of any type that could be viewed as negative for their candidate," he said.
There is some truth to the assertion that a poor poll can depress a candidate's support in future polls, creating a self-supporting trend that is as difficult to measure as it is to shake off.
"Absolutely, there's the potential for this snowball effect," said Dr. Costas Panagopoulos, director of the Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy, speaking to The Hill.
"But you can't have it both ways. You can't argue the polls are great when they favor your candidate and are flawed when they move against your candidate."
Still, it is important to remember that every poll includes a margin of error, a percentage by which the pollsters are quite certain their numbers are accurate. And lately, nearly every poll has put the two candidates' support well within the margin of error.
Part of the reason polls in the same state vary so much day-to-day, or national polls swing back and forth, is because of random chance, completely dependent on who happens to answer the phone and how they happen to feel at the particular moment when a pollster calls looking for an opinion.
To filter out the noise of individual polls, look at aggregates and trends. Past performance is not necessarily a predictor of future performance, but sometimes history repeats itself.
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