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One Way to Look at the Presidential Polls

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Current polling detailing the 2012 race for the White House between presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama (above) should be met with scrutiny.

Its really amazing how some people with years of political experience change their opinions about the political landscape to match the latest poll.

Its not that poll results shouldnt affect our understanding of politics or inform us about what people are thinking. Its that too often people behave as if the most recent poll they encounter has enormous predictive value. At this point in the cycle, it probably doesnt.

The best example of this myopia is the way that folks on Morning Joe, the MSNBC morning show that still sometimes tries to be analytical, have been discussing polls.

For months, most of the regulars on the show beat up on Republican Mitt Romney, buying into the developing narrative that he and his party have dug themselves into such a deep hole that he may not be able to get out.

Then presto! a CBS News/New York Times poll comes out showing the presidential race as a dead heat, and the next day the folks at Morning Joe are shaking their heads about how President Barack Obama is in as equally bad shape as Romney and that the election is up for grabs. The regulars on that program arent alone in doing this, of course.

In fact, the latest CBS News/New York Times poll, conducted April 13-17, isnt very different from the previous one, conducted March 7-11, which showed Obama holding a narrow 3-point lead, 46 percent to 43 percent, over Romney. Statistically and analytically, those two results are the same.

Of course, the April CBS News/New York Times survey shows a dramatically different race from CNNs poll, which has Obama leading Romney, 52 percent to 43 percent. Both use registered voters. It isnt up to me to decide which one is right.

To be honest, Im not thrilled with the last couple of CBS News/New York Times surveys, which I usually consider one of the more credible polls.

The April CBS News/New York Times poll found Obamas job ratings as 48 percent approve/43 percent disapprove. A month earlier, Obamas ratings were a much worse 41 percent approve/47 percent disapprove.

Think about it. Obamas job approval increased by 7 points during the month, but the general election ballot test got closer. Does that seem likely? Obamas 41 percent approval in March in the CBS News/New York Time poll was much lower than most other reliable surveys, so that number also seemed odd.

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