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Polls This Year Have Been Anything but Clear

Rather than providing a clear snapshot of the state of a campaign, the unprecedented barrage of presidential and Congressional race polling this year has generated conflict and uncertainty among the political class. 

For example, averages of polls in swing states suggest President Barack Obama is poised for an Electoral College victory over Mitt Romney. But the GOP challenger’s campaign and its supporters argue that their data indicate the opposite. Below the topline horse-race numbers that look good for Obama, Republicans say some surveys have shown their voters are more enthusiastic than Democratic voters. And Romney is generally leading among independents.

At the Congressional level, the publicizing of internal campaign polls by House and Senate candidates has become more frequent than in past elections cycles, leading to more questions than answers for reporters and analysts who hunger for data to gauge the progress of a particular race. In several instances this year, campaigns simultaneously released internal polls conducted at roughly the same time that revealed starkly different snapshots of a contest, ostensibly to drive a political narrative.

Sean Trende, senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics.com, blamed the Internet and polling aggregators —
including his own firm’s “RealClearPolitics average,” Nate Silver’s New York Times-hosted FiveThirtyEight blog and others — for increasing the number of internal Congressional surveys that are made public. Trende said in an interview Monday that he suspects some campaigns release favorable internal polls to boost the RCP average, which in turn may elevate their media profile and help them raise more money. 

“I think part of it is because sites like RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight have contributed to the glut of partisan polls, because I do think they try and influence the averages and the race calls,” Trende said.

The controversy generated by polling is not limited to conservatives and Romney supporters. But they clearly have been some of the most vocal skeptics of the public polls, most of which are sponsored by media outlets, academic institutions or both in partnership. 

As polls of the general election matchup between Obama and Romney proliferated during the course of this year, amateur and professional political watchers alike — on the right and the left — dug into each survey’s details and eagerly questioned the partisan sample splits and other demographic turnout assumptions that determine the results. And they took to social media to highlight and criticize what they believed were a poll’s flaws.  

Some, such as Republican pollster David Winston, have used their Twitter feeds to compare current polls with past election results. Democratic pollster Margie Omero, who this cycle partnered with a GOP pollster to survey undecided female voters dubbed “Walmart moms,” said social media has led somewhat to the polling controversy, as it provides almost anyone with an outlet to publish their analysis of the data.

“Twitter-driven perhaps is an oversimplification,” Omero said of the controversy. “But I do feel there is so much coverage of polling now, it’s easy for people to look at the data and come up with their own analysis. Generally, that’s a good thing; it creates more transparency and discussion.”

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