Why You Need to Ignore Most Current Polling

by Stuart Rothenberg June 3, 2011 · 10:48 AM EDT

My eye caught a small item in Roll Call on Tuesday announcing that “Blackwell Leads GOP Senate Hopefuls in Ohio Poll,” a reference to the 2012 Ohio Senate contest.

Polls are news, of course, so this newspaper and its competitors dutifully report them, eager to post a new item on their websites and to make sure that you know they are on top of the latest news.

For pollsters, these types of surveys are a marketing bonanza. Public Policy Polling, a Democratic survey research firm in North Carolina that conducted the Ohio Senate poll that matched former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (R) and others against Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), is one of the firms that often includes everyone and anyone in hypothetical ballots.

The more names they include, the more likely that some news organization will pick up the release. It doesn’t matter whether the people included in the ballot tests are likely to run.

In March, PPP conducted a survey that pitted Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) against unsuccessful 2010 GOP gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman (R), even though there is no chance that Whitman will make that race.

About a month ago, PPP did a survey about the Arizona Senate race in which the firm conducted a hypothetical ballot test pitting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), who still faces a long and difficult period of recovery after being shot in the head in January, against former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who shows no sign of preparing for that race. (Owning a home in the state is not evidence of an approaching candidacy.)

For some colleges, political polling undoubtedly is about marketing. Few had heard of Quinnipiac College (now Quinnipiac University) before the school became a major player in the polling business, and a large New York City public relations firm, Rubenstein Associates, handles the release of the surveys by the university’s Polling Institute. (Rubenstein’s other clients include L’Oreal USA, the New York Yankees and Al Roker Productions.)

I’m not sure which came first, the chicken or the egg, but there is now a growing number of colleges and universities doing polling. Last cycle, the list included Siena, Marist, Muhlenberg, Arizona State, University of Arkansas, Suffolk, the University of Delaware, Southern Illinois, the University of New Hampshire, Manhattanville, High Point, Elon, the University of Cincinnati, Franklin & Marshall, Winthrop, the University of Washington and St. Norbert College.

Of course, some of these schools have extensive experience in survey research and have either experienced political-science faculty and/or veteran political journalists overseeing their surveys and interpreting their data. But almost any survey with a college or university name is going to get picked up by enough media outlets to become part of “the buzz,” even if the institution has no track record in political polling.

I’m not sure whether anyone paid much attention to PPP’s survey showing Blackwell running well ahead of state Treasurer Josh Mandel and former state Sen. Kevin Coughlin for the GOP Senate nomination, but I hope nobody did.

While Mandel was just elected to a statewide office last year, Blackwell has been a public figure in Ohio since he was first appointed that state’s treasurer in 1994.

Blackwell ran statewide for that office that same year, for secretary of state in 1998 and 2002 and for governor in 2006. In other words, he’s run statewide many times, including in a very high-profile gubernatorial race. That explains his strength in the early PPP survey.

Of course, Blackwell received 37 percent of the vote in his 2006 bid, the second-worst showing in an Ohio gubernatorial race since World War II, and some Republicans believe that PPP included Blackwell’s name in the survey to encourage him to run for Senate, knowing he’d have little chance of winning.

Democrats believe Rasmussen Research polling results are also intended to manipulate the Democratic field and the coverage of the general election, ultimately benefiting Republican candidates.

I suppose one could argue early surveys that have no predictive value at least establish a baseline against which later polls can be measured. But why take a “snapshot” of a race with an early poll if you know the snapshot presents a distorted picture of the contest?

A late May 2011 CNN/Opinion Research survey asked Republicans to select their preference for their party’s presidential nomination from a list of 13 names. The leaders were Rudy Giuliani (16 percent), Mitt Romney (15 percent), Sarah Palin (13 percent), Ron Paul (12 percent) and Herman Cain (10 percent).

These results are just as instructive as were the results from a mid-July 2007 Gallup survey that found Giuliani leading the 2008 GOP race with 30 percent to runner-up Fred Thompson’s 20 percent, or the mid-August 2007 Quinnipiac poll that showed Giuliani at 28 percent to Romney’s 15 percent and Thompson’s 12 percent.

This cycle, nobody really thinks that Ron Paul or Herman Cain, no matter how “well” they are doing now in early polling, have anything more than a microscopic chance of being nominated for president in Tampa next year. And that probably is generous.

So, while newspapers, websites and even TV networks feel obligated to report on early polls that measure nothing but name identification, you don’t have to pay any attention. After all, you must have something better to do with your time.