Polls got it right, despite pre-election criticism

| Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

After months of partisan criticism, angry dismissals and cries to “unskew” their results, it turns out pollsters know what they're talking about.

Every poll in the past two weeks — except a Tribune-Review survey — showed President Obama would win Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes on Tuesday. Most of the seven surveys showed him winning by 4 to 6 percentage points, and he won by 5.2 points.

“The winners of last night were Barack Obama, Bob Casey and the pollsters,” said Jefrey Pollock, CEO of the Democratic firm Global Strategies Group.

Pollock's most recent poll showed Obama winning by 6 points and Sen. Bob Casey Jr. winning by 7; the Scranton Democrat beat Republican Tom Smith of Armstrong County by 8.

The Trib poll, conducted Oct. 29-31 by Susquehanna Polling & Research, found Obama tied with Republican Mitt Romney at 47 percent and Casey leading Smith 46 percent to 45 percent, with an error margin of 3.46 percentage points. Romney ended up with about 47 percent and Smith reached 45 percent, but their Democratic opponents outperformed the poll by 5 and 7.6 percentage points, respectively.

Susquehanna underestimated turnout among Democratic-friendly segments of the population, said Susquehanna's president, Jim Lee. Young voters and Philadelphia-area Democrats turned out in numbers close to those in 2008, when Obama won the state by 10 points, Lee said.

“That caught me off guard. I didn't think that was going to happen. I didn't think the enthusiasm was there,” Lee said.

Voters ages 18 to 29 were a key constituency in Obama's 2008 victory, when they turned out in record numbers.

“I was suggesting it would be lower with that age group, given unemployment was considerably higher” for them, Lee said. Federal statistics show 22.7 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds are unemployed, and 13.2 percent of those ages 20 to 24, compared with 7.9 percent unemployment overall.

Lee thought those voters would be around 10 percent of the electorate. Exit polls showed they made up nearly 20 percent, and 63 percent of them chose Obama.

Democrat-heavy Philadelphia accounted for about 12 percent of the electorate, as it did in 2008 when Obama drew record numbers of black voters to the polls.

“While whites went 57-42 for Romney — which was not as much as Romney needed — blacks went 93-6 for Obama, and Hispanics went 80-18 for Obama,” said Bruce Haynes, a Republican strategist in Washington.

That contributed to the Trib poll's sampling problem, he said. “The pollster chose the wrong turnout model. If you go back and reweigh their numbers, they would have nailed it.”

Democrats who criticized Lee's polls frequently pointed out that he conducts internal polls for GOP campaigns and the state Republican Party. Lee said he doesn't mold results to suit clients.

“Are we a Republican polling firm? Yeah. I'm not pretending that we aren't. But when (the results) benefit Democrats, we say it,” Lee said.

In 2010, his polls correctly showed a 2-point lead for Republican Pat Toomey in the Senate race when other polls showed him farther ahead. Susquehanna's was the only state poll that said Rep. Mark Critz would beat opponent Tim Burns in 2010.

Lee noted the poll showing a tied presidential race also showed Democrat Kathleen Kane leading the attorney general's race by 11 points. She won that race.

“If we were cooking the results, would we have shown that margin for Kane?” he said.

Figuring out the demographic breakdown for any poll includes some uncertainty, said G. Terry Madonna, director of Franklin & Marshall College Poll. Madonna's last poll found Obama leading Romney 49-45 percent.

Madonna took criticism shortly before the April primary, when GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum accused him of being a “Democratic hack.” At the time, Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, was fighting for his political life as Pennsylvania slipped toward Romney. Madonna provoked his ire by releasing a poll that showed him up only 2 points over Romney, a month after Romney trailed Santorum in the state by nearly 30 points.

“It's the nature of the polarized environment we're in,” Madonna said. “The side that's losing gets upset.”

Vitriol heaped on pollsters and statisticians rose to new heights as people who once grumbled privately took to Twitter and other social media to criticize polls they didn't like and attack people such as the New York Times' Nate Silver, whose poll aggregates showed Obama as odds-on favorite for months.

“We have no desire and no need to skew the data,” Pollock said. “If we say somebody's going to win and they lose, we don't get hired.”

Staff writer Salena Zito contributed to this report. Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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