Nuts and Bolts of Political Polls

A standard topic in my statistics class is political polling, which is the canonical example of constructing a confidence interval with a relatively small sample to (hopefully) project the opinions of a large population. Of course, polling is only valid if the sample represents the population at large. This is a natural engagement activity in the fall semester preceding a presidential election.

A recent article on FiveThirtyEight.com, “Are Bad Pollsters Copying Good Pollsters,” does a nice job of explaining some of the nuts and bolts of political polling in an age when selected participants are increasingly unlikely to participate… and also raises the specter of how pollsters using nontraditional methods might consciously or subconconsciously cheating.  A sample (pun intended) from the article:

What’s a nontraditional poll? One that doesn’t abide by the industry’s best practices. So, a survey is nontraditional if it:

  • doesn’t follow probability sampling;
  • doesn’t use live interviewers;
  • is released by a campaign or campaign groups (because these only selectively release data);
  • doesn’t disclose (i.e. doesn’t release raw data to the Roper Archives, isn’t a member of the National Council on Public Polls, or hasn’t signed onto the American Association for Public Opinion Research transparency initiative).

Everything else is a gold-standard poll…

Princeton University graduate student Steven Rogers and Vanderbilt University professor of political science Joshua Clinton [studied] interactive voice response (IVR) surveys in the 2012 Republican presidential primary. (IVR pollsters are in our nontraditional group.) Rogers and Clinton found that IVR pollsters were about as accurate as live-interview pollsters in races where live-interview pollsters surveyed the electorate. IVR pollsters were considerably less accurate when no live-interview poll was conducted. This effect held true even when controlling for a slew of different variables. Rogers and Clinton suggested that the IVR pollsters were taking a “cue” from the live pollsters in order to appear more accurate.

My own analysis hints at the same possibility. The nontraditional pollsters did worse in races without a live pollster.

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