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posted on 18 July 2016

Why National Polls Mean Little In U.S. Presidential Elections

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The standard story is that Barck Obama defeated Mitt Romney handily in the 2012 presidential election. But, upon closer examination the election was a squeak-through for Obama.


Yes, Obama did have a popular vote margin of 4.982 million and won the electoral vote by 332-206. But if just 278,000 who voted for Obama had instead cast their ballots for Romney, Romney would have been elected by the electoral college 273-265. Obama would have had a popular vote plurality of more than 4.4 million votes but would not have returned for a second term.

The votes switched to produce the Romney victory would have been in just three states: Florida (38,000 out of 8.474 million or 0.45%), Ohio (84,000 out of 5.581 million or 1.5%) and Pennsylvania (156,000 out of 5.754 million or 2.7%). All of these are within the margin of error for most polling services, Florida and Ohio are both less than the margin of error for any poll. See data for all polling services here. This is the first reason why national polls are simply insufficiently reliable in a close election, even one where the final margin of victory approached 5 million.

Many polls indicated the popular vote nationally in 2012 would be a virtual tie. The average for all polls indicated an advantage for Obama of 0.7%, which would have been about 900,000 of the 129 million votes cast. The final margin was 4.982 million, a difference of almost 4.1 million or 3.2%. This is outside the measurement error quoted for 15 of the 17 polls completed in the days starting with November 1 and only three of the 15 had Obama receiving more than 49% of the vote, while two actually had Romney ahead. The average for all the polls was 48.8% for Obama and 48.1% for Romney. The election tally was Obama 51.1%, Romney 47.2% and others 1.7%.

The discussion above is the second reason that national polls have little meaning in close presidential elections. They simply have too wide a margin of error.

If someone has a polling margin of 5% that may start to be an indication of a lead that is likely to hold up for a victory in the election. But that is only a margin of 6.5 million in an election with 130 million votes cast. In a future post I will show with hypotheticals that even with a vote plurality of the order of 6 million it is quite conceivable that the popular vote winner could lose in the electoral college.


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