If polls are the fix that political junkies crave, this campaign is no time to try to get clean. In a survey research version of the 1980s crack cocaine boom, public relations firms, interest groups and news orgs have been peddling their numbers on every street corner.
Those polls have created a relatively new dilemma for journalists and news consumers: How do you make sense of it all? (Or, to push the drug analogy, who has the good stuff?) How could Obama be ahead by 10 points in one poll and yet in a dead heat with McCain in another? Which polls matter –- state, national, partisan, battlegrounds?
A number of specialized blogs and sites have sprouted up this election to aggregate and discuss polls. One, though, goes further with a two-pronged approach: one theoretical, the other practical. FiveThirtyEight is part blog, part journalism, and fairly addictive. (I signed up for the daily text message updates, which has not improved my home life.)
Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight’s founder, takes all the polls he can find, plugs them into calculations that adjust for factors such as reliability and state demographics and then issues his own projections of who will win. Meanwhile, blogger Sean Quinn and freelance photographer Brett Marty have been driving around the country in a 1998 Ford Escort, dropping in on McCain and Obama field offices in an effort to assess the big unknown on Tuesday: turnout.
Within six months, Silver, 30, has moved from an anonymous Daily Kos contributor to a guest on cable news shows. Quinn, who last played poker for a living, is contemplating a move to Washington to cover politics. FiveThirtyEight now gets about 800,000 pageviews each weekday (about 500,000 unique visitors), Silver said. The site was included on a list of hot political sites and blogs released by comScore last week. And devoted readers leave several hundred comments on individual posts.
There are other Web sites and blogs that focus on the numbers. RealClearPolitics offers a comprehensive list of polls and averages them. Chuck Langer blogs about polls for ABC News, and polls are a frequent topic on msnbc.com’s “First Read” blog. Pollster.com has several bloggers who clearly know what they’re talking about. And compared to FiveThirtyEight’s Excel-created maps and charts, Pollster.com’s impressive, Flash-based customizable charts (click on a state to view the scatter plot) may be the speedball of polling. (OK, that’s the last drug reference.)
But FiveThirtyEight is the only site with ties to fantasy baseball. Silver invented a system of baseball statistics, called PECOTA, that aims to predict the performance of baseball players, in part by comparing them to a library of thousands of real players’ past season performances. (While FiveThirtyEight is taking a lot of his time now and makes some money, Baseball Prospectus is his primary occupation.)
When you’re used to calculating 30 or 40 statistics for 750 major league ballplayers, Silver said, figuring out what share of the vote will be split between just two candidates isn’t that tough. “In some ways, politics is easier to look at and interpret than baseball data.”
The problem Silver saw during the primary season was that there was too much polling data and not enough analysis and understanding. Each poll is reported as news in itself, he said, although they’re “not terrifically accurate instruments.”
Understanding and Interpreting Polls
As Election Day approaches, learn how to make sense of the latest poll results, decipher the data in election polls and go beyond the horse-race numbers. Enroll now