Has McCain really pulled even with Obama in Minnesota?
The Star Tribune stated it, this morning, as if it was an established fact — and in headline type, on Page 1A, above the fold.
The story was a lot more cautious. The Strib’s page one editor acknowledged this morning that the headline lacked nuance. But the decision to put the poll story on page 1, with that headline, was a shock because — and I speak as a 30-year Strib veteran — the paper historically has had a huge bias against putting a poll about Minnesota, other than its own Minnesota Poll, on Page 1.
The headline is based on a Quinnipiac University poll taken in four “swing” states for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. Esteemed colleague David Brauer put up a Political Agenda item when the poll came out yesterday. And Brauer noted in today’s Daily Glean that while the Strib found the poll to be a Page 1 story, the Pi-Press ran a wire story on it on page B5. Have I mentioned lately that journalism is not science?
The poll actually found Obama leading by 46-44 percent, but that’s well within the margin of error. So if you were to base your entire understanding of the race for Minnesota’s electoral votes on the Quinnipiac poll, you could call it even.
If it turns out that other pollsters, including the most reputable ones using the most trusted methods, confirm that the Minn prez race is now a toss-up, that will be a very big deal for politics-obsessed horserace watchers like me (and, admit it, you, too). It would even change our understanding of where the whole race stands nationally.
But, of course, that’s one reason to take the Quinnipiac result with plenty of salt. There’s nothing going on in the national polls or in Minnesota’s neighboring states (including in this same Quinnipac poll, which has Obama leading in Wisconsin by 50-39) that would make a big Obama collapse in Minnesota seem likely.
When a single poll deviates from the consensus of many previous polls, I suggest that our attitude should be: Whoa, Nellie.
At the moment, the Quinnipiac poll is an outlier. Big time. Using the compilation of Minn prez polls by Pollster.com, you’ll find that of the last 10 Minn prez polls taken, other than this Quinnipiac poll, Obama led by double-digits in eight of them. The biggest lead shown — 54-37 for 17 points — was in the previous poll by Quinnipiac itself one month earlier. That makes the whole thing mysteriouser, since the big swing toward McCain can’t be explained by a difference between polling operations or methodologies.
When an outlier like that comes along, you need to stay calm. It may be the first one to pick up a trend. But there’s an excellent chance it will not turn out that way and you should await developments before you treat it as the new reality.
The estimable Pollster.com, by the way, which is run by a group of poll-obsessed political scientists, uses a complicated formula to derive an average result when looking at many polls of the same race — except it isn’t an average, it’s a regression based on trend lines, whatever that means. Taking all recent polls, including the recent Quinnipiac, Pollster finds that the trend in Minnesota favors Obama by 50.2-37.7,
I wouldn’t state that as a fact either, nor do the guys at Pollster make any such claim, but it has more going for it than one recent outlier.
Let’s violate the code a little more and talk about the whole list of Minn prez polls. Most of them come from the same two pollsters, Survey USA (which polls locally for KSTP-TV) and Rasmussen Reports (which polls for Fox TV stations, which locally would be KMSP).
They poll very frequently, their polls are less expensive because SUSA and Rasmussen use the robotic interview method where respondents can punch their answers into their phone in response to questions from a recorded voice.
The polling establishment hasn’t made up its mind about this methodology, and big news organizations tend to feel more comfortable relying on the older (but more expensive) methodology requiring actual human-to-human interviews.
My most poll-savvy advisers are undecided but a bit skeptical about the new methodology. They also tell me that SUSA has the better track record in Minnesota and does a better job disclosing and defending its methodology than does Rasmussen. Personally, I take that into account when the two firms continue pumping out frequent polls on both our Senate and prez races.
So, I assume that one thing going on in the background of the Strib’s decision to go big with the Quinnipiac result is that it used the more trusted methodology. It also had a larger sample and a smaller margin for sampling error.
To his credit, my esteemed former colleague Bob von Sternberg, who wrote the Strib story (but not the headline), talks about a lot of these issues. He mentions in the second paragraph that Quinnipiac is “at odds” with other recent polls, including Quinnipiac’s own June poll. He talks about different methodologies and sample sizes. He was not able – within the voice boundaries of mainstream newspaper journalism – to indicate which methodologies and organizations are more trusted, as I just did, but I would say he was trying to at least hint at it.
So, to summarize, reasons to make a Page 1 story out of the Quinnipiac poll:
• It’s surprising.
• Large sample.
• Established methodology.
• Comes with the imprimatur Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
Reasons to be leery of it:
• It’s an outlier (which is why it’s surprising).
• Same poll showed Obama still leading by 50-39 in Wisconsin. No obvious explanation for the disparity.
• Changes in national popular vote polls show some decline in Obama’s lead but not consistent with a huge one-month swing in Minnesota.
Then there’s this rather strange acknowledgment from Quinnipiac University’s Clay Richards, as paraphrased by my esteemed Associated Press colleague Brian Bakst:
“Richards, the assistant director of [Quinnipiac’s] polling institute, said the Obama slide probably isn¹t as dramatic as the raw numbers reflect.”
So, returning briefly to the Strib’s decision to front page the poll story, which, as I said above is at least historically strange, esteemed colleague Brauer spoke to esteemed former colleague and current Strib Page 1 editor Colleen Stoxen (hi Colleen, hope you’re doing well).
She said that yes, the headline was too strong (“could have been more nuanced”), that no, the fact that the poll was good news for McCain had nothing to do with it (“absolutely not”), that she has not been front-page editor long enough to know how big a break with tradition it was (it’s me saying that it was, but it was), and that the poll story got onto the front page late in the day, because of considerations of what Page 1 editors call “mix.” (“It was just a day where that type of story fit in topically with everything else.”)
Have I mentioned lately that journalism isn’t science?
P.S. I haven’t mentioned that the same Quinnipiac poll showed Norm Coleman leading Al Franken in the Senate race by 53-38 percent of likely voters. The Rasmussen poll, taken at about the same time, had it Coleman 44, Franken 43.