Poll Quirks and Triumphalism

When I saw the headline for the new CBS/Times poll of the presidential race, I groaned aloud: not because “my” candidate was behind, or because a three-point Romney lead nearly six months from Election Day means anything, but because of the timing. I figured anyone with an interest in claiming that Obama’s expression of support for same-sex marriage was an act of political suicide would leap on the poll with all four sets of claws.

And sure enough, the sounds of extraordinarily early triumphalism are in the air amongst our little friends on the Right. Brett LoGiurato’s item on the poll for Business Insider bears the highly nuanced headline: “This May Be The Most Disastrous-Looking Poll For Obama Yet.” RedState’s Erick Erickson cites the poll as prime evidence for this modest headline: “May 6, 2012: The Day Obama Lost,” an allusion to the date of Joe Biden’s remarks on his comfort level with same-sex marriage. Katrina Trinko at National Review is equally certain the same-sex marriage issue has vaulted Mitt into the lead. You can only imagine what Dick Morris, who has recently been predicting an epic Republican landslide, will do with this data point.

Aside from the fact that Romney’s lead in the CBS/Times poll is within the MoE, there is this little matter of the particular poll’s quirky methodology. National Journal’s Steven Shepard explains:

The poll is actually a panel-back survey: Respondents to this poll were originally interviewed in mid-April for the previous CBS News/New York Times poll. In the mid-April survey, Obama and Romney ran dead even, with each candidate earning 46 percent of the vote.

Panel-back surveys are conducted for a number of reasons: Some pollsters occasionally consider it instructive to interview the same universe of people before and after a specific event. In other cases, it is simply cheaper to dial phone numbers behind which pollsters know are voters who are willing to answer public-opinion surveys; in doing so, pollsters avoid many of the nearly four-in-five adults who decline to participate in telephone polls.

But the practice also has drawbacks. Not every respondent to the original poll is available or willing to be interviewed again; indeed, of the 852 registered voters interviewed last month, just 562 were re-interviewed for this survey. Some analysts also believe that the experience of being interviewed previously affects how they view the race, potentially making them more likely to seek out information about politics and the presidential race, though the results of the poll are virtually identical to those of the previous survey.

Romney’s slight “surge,” and the finding that the pro-Obama gender gap has shrunk dramatically, aren’t the only notable things about this poll, BTW:

A CBS News analysis of the poll notes that, with the exception of a poll closely following the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces, its results represent Obama’s highest approval rating since April 2010. This conclusion, however, should carry an asterisk due to the poll’s unusual methodology.

So Obama’s approval rating is up while his share of the vote is down. Which finding should we be paying attention to? Hard to say, though in one of his classic “Chill, folks” posts about early polls, Nate Silver points to the president’s approval rating as the single most reliable indicator of where the race currently stands.

The safest approach is to pretty much ignore this one quirky poll and stay focused on poll averages, which currently give Obama a modest lead amidst a slight trend towards the tightening of the race in recent weeks. That’s highly predictable insofar as Romney’s nomination contest victory has boosted his support levels among the Republican voters who were backing his opponents. It’s possible that Obama’s same-sex marriage statement hastened this development a bit, but it was going to happen anyway.

If I were a conservative, I’d be telling my peers they need to get back on the meds and not begin the great snake-dance to victory every time a poll comes out showing something favorable to The Cause. And I’d be particularly scornful of those who are suggesting gay marriage is going to decide the election even as my candidate was ever-frantic to suggest that any talking point involving anything other than the economy was a fatal diversion.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.