Presidential polling potholes

Photo by The Ottawa Citizen
| Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, 8:51 p.m.

One of the nation's leading public opinion pollsters, Scott Rasmussen also is a best-selling author and political analyst. The founder and president of Rasmussen Reports spoke to the Trib regarding the challenges pollsters face in the concluding weeks of a presidential campaign.

Q: How easy is it for presidential polls to go astray?

A: Well, the theory of polling is very easy, but the actual implementation obviously is a lot more challenging. If you were to put it on a scale of difficulty, polling a national presidential election race is much easier than polling a state primary (or a) special election or those sorts of things. I'm fairly confident that by the campaign's final week, we will all have a pretty good idea of how the election will turn out.

Q: Are there any common polling mistakes that occur in a presidential campaign's home stretch?

A: There are a lot of mistakes in the analysis of polls. Sometimes people will take a particular number out of context and build stories around it that really don't merit the attention it (gets). One of the best examples of mistakes so far this year has been the obsession about the gender gap. There is a gender gap. Democrats do about 12 points better among women than they do among men. But there's nothing unusual about that. Barack Obama had a 12-point gender gap over John McCain four years ago. So sometimes a story line like that perhaps gets taken out of context.

Q: What trends will you be examining in the campaign's final weeks?

A: The first thing we'll be looking for is any sense of a real lasting breakout. If you look at likely voter polls over the last couple of months, they all show the race 1 or 2 points apart. If either candidate can open up a sustained lead beyond a couple of points, that obviously would be a significant thing.

Also, one of the things we are keeping a very close eye on right now is the generation gap. Adults under 30 still strongly favor the Democrats. President Obama is still going to do very well among voters under 30. What's interesting, though, is that among voters over 65, Mitt Romney so far is dramatically outperforming John McCain's (2008) totals, and in fact among seniors they are pushing about a 20-point advantage in Romney's direction right now. That's an area the Democrats obviously are hoping to work on with the Medicare issue, and it's going to be one of the more significant things to watch out for between now and Election Day.

Q: Can any direct correlation be made between President Obama's job approval rating and the percentage of the vote he's likely to receive on Election Day?

A: Absolutely. In 2004 on Election Day, our tracking polls showed that George Bush's approval rating was just over 50 percent, and he got just over 50 percent of the vote. If you were to compare President Bush's and President Obama's job approval numbers over the summer (of their re-election campaigns), they were fairly close.

For President Obama, it's not quite where he wants to be but it's not so terrible that he's out of it.

If he gets a couple of good economic reports that have people feeling a little bit better by October heading into November, his numbers should move up enough to give him a victory.

If that doesn't happen, we could be in for a long election night.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or

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