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Experts Weigh In On The Most Accurate Polls

by J. Hutton Marshall, published

In the wake of the first presidential debate, many wondered how the performances by President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would be construed. Some turned to the numerous polls and political research organizations for insight on who came out on top. The problem is that one may never find two polls with the exact same results and it is difficult to assess which organizations or research centers produce the most accurate polls. In the days following the debate, the New York Times's FiveThirtyEight blog showed that Obama was still hanging on to his lead, but Talking Points Memo’s PollTracker showed that Romney had gained a two to three point lead.

So which polls should be paid attention to? Which should be taken seriously and which should we ignore? Several media professionals and political science professors weighed in on polling methodology and, in their opinion, which polls are trustworthy.

The general consensus was that every poll, no matter how it’s conducted, has a margin of error. It is unavoidable. Most agreed that aggregate polling was one way around this problem.

“Most polls have some flaw or another, so I like to think that once you average them together you get a better overall picture of the races,” said San Diego City Beat staff writer Dave Maass. He pointed to TPM's PollTracker as a prime example of aggregate polling. “It's like quickly taking the pulse and temperature of a patient as opposed to doing the full physical, with X-rays and a rectal exam.”

San Diego State political science professor Brian Adams prefers for the same principal.

“Because all polls have a margin of error, focusing on just one is not wise,” Adams said. “It's good to look at multiple polls, and this website does a nice job of aggregating polls.”

However, Pacific Magazine associate editor Allie Daugherty pointed to a much less scientific poll, the 7-Eleven cups. The convenience store gives coffee drinkers the option to choose between a Romney or Obama cup and they keep track of how many of each they sell, state by state.

Daugherty and Pacific Magazine’s managing editor Patricia P. Dwyer swears by its accuracy, which isn’t as farfetched as it sounds. In the three presidential election cycles that the poll has been active, it has picked the winner every time. Obama currently leads that poll by 18 points.

While aggregate polls such as TPM, RealClearPolitics, and the FiveThirtyEight blogs were overwhelming favorites among professors and media professionals, many advised to remain skeptical when it comes to a poll’s methodology, regardless of whether the poll in question aggregates or not. Maass recommended remaining skeptical of any poll that fails to disclose its methodology. “You specifically want to know exactly how the questions were phrased, how large the pool was, and who was over-represented in the sample, and whether the poll was conducted via live interviewer or robocall,” Maass advised.

Other polls recommended by professionals and scholars:

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press: the branch of the nonpartisan think tank devoted to public opinion research. It conducts monthly surveys on politics and major policy issues. It has Romney up 49 to 45 percent.

Intrade: “The World’s Leading Prediction Market.” Intrade is “a platform where you make predictions by buying and selling shares on the outcome of real-world events.” It has Obama up 63 to 37 percent.

Rasmussen Reports: This polling company website boasts itself as the most visited public opinion website. Its slogan is “If it’s in the news, it’s in our polls.” It has Obama up in the electoral college 237 to 181.

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