Ron Paul won 45 percent of the vote in a straw poll in California over the weekend, and his supporters are beside themselves with joy. What I can’t figure out is why such bright people are so fooled about something so meaningless.
There are three kinds of political polls. (Well, four, if you want to count election day voting.) Let’s talk about what they are and which ones matter, because many very bright people don’t understand which ones are potentially worth getting excited about.
The first of the three is the opinion poll with a statistically valid, randomly selected sample of the likely voting population — and this is the only one that matters. These are the polls done by the big polling organizations such as Gallup and Pew and various others done for major media outlets. These are expensive to conduct, but they tend to be very useful and reasonably accurate. The results can be skewed slightly one way or another by the wording of questions or by the selection of the random sample. Various pollsters make slightly different assumptions and calculations about who likely voters are going to be, but their results tend to be reasonably accurate — especially if you average all the polls.
For instance, take a look at these five recent polls as reported by Real Clear Politics. Ron Paul has results ranging from 5 percent to 12 percent. If you average the five numbers, though, you get 10.2 percent, which is right in line with what I suspect his true support is. You can do the same thing with the other candidates and get a pretty honest snapshot of where they stand with the voters right now. The further someone is in the lead, the more confident a pollster can be that his poll is accurate, because there’s more room for error.
Because I’ve had to deal with polls in my work over the last 20 years, I’m pretty familiar with the subject, so I could tell you way more than you want to know about it. I also studied statistical survey research methods in college, so it’s a subject that fascinates me.
Now, let’s move on to the straw poll. Typically, straw polls are held by political organizations having conventions of some sort, such as state parties. Pretty much anybody can vote in a straw poll, so there’s no validity at all to the results. If a campaign is organized, has rabid supporters and has the money to pull it off, it can bus in huge numbers of people to take part. But since the results have nothing to do with the sentiments of the larger voting population, the results don’t reflect reality in the least.
Here’s another dirty little secret of straw polls. The organizations having their conventions — the ones who are sponsoring the straw polls — love to foster the impression that the things matter, because they charge an entrance fee to everyone who comes to take part. It’s not going to make anybody rich, but if a campaign buses in 1,000 people just to vote, that’s $30,000 in “free money” for the organization at $30 a head — for doing pretty much nothing.
The only thing a straw poll shows is that a campaign can come up with a certain number of people to show up and that it can afford to pay the entrance fees for those people. (Who pays can vary.) It doesn’t have anything to do with reflecting reality of the voting public’s sentiments.
The last kind of “poll” doesn’t even deserve the name. It’s not really a poll. It’s just a marketing gimmick for websites, but pretty much every news organization does it in order to get people to keep clicking on its pages and driving up ad views. I’m speaking of the “online poll” about something such as who won a debate. Because it’s self-selecting — and it’s typically promoted heavily by supporters of online-savvy campaigns — its results mean less than nothing. But campaigns brag about it and the websites get to see their hit numbers go up.
We all know that libertarians are greatly overrepresented online. If the election were held among the most rabid online users, Paul would actually stand a chance, because his supporters tend to be younger and much more online-savvy than the supporters of the candidates who actually win elections. Because of this, Ron Paul is going to win pretty much all of these “online polls.” It doesn’t mean a thing, because it doesn’t reflect reality among the people who will actually go to the polls that really count.
So that’s the three types of polls. Please understand the difference and quit pretending that the ones that don’t represent reality mean anything. They don’t. You can win all the straw polls and “online polls” in the world, but if the makeup on the people voting in those isn’t similar to the makeup of the actual voting population, it tells you nothing.
If you support Ron Paul, please quit telling people that he is “ahead in the polls” or that he “wins the polls.” When it comes to actual, random opinion polls, he’s going to get somewhere around 10 percent. The only “polls” he wins are the ones that don’t make any difference and that don’t reflect reality.
If you want to talk people into supporting your candidate, go right ahead and try, but don’t point to meaningless things such as these and then whine that your candidate isn’t getting media attention. He’s not getting media attention because reporters know the same thing that I know — which is that Paul doesn’t have any support beyond our narrow slice of the public. That slice isn’t going to grow substantially.
I’m sorry to break this news about polls to you, but I can assure you it’s the truth.