Polling junkies be warned

By Eric Boehlert

Published May 12, 2004 6:14PM (EDT)

The latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll results didn't provide the White House with much good news; 54 percent -- a new high watermark -- think the war in Iraq was "not worth it." But buried inside there appeared to be one ray of hope; Bush is leading Sen. John Kerry 51-46 percent in 16 crucial battleground states among likely voters. The only problem is that the number, based on the polling methodology used and the minuscule number of voters contacted, is pretty wobbly, which means neither Karl Rove nor the Kerry camp should put too much stock in the result.

Of course, the idea behind the battleground poll is fascinating, since the presidential election will clearly be decided in just over a dozen states where Bush and Kerry actually have a chance at swaying swing voters. (Why not delete voters in New York and Alabama from surveys? They're not going to determine the winner.) The only hitch for pollsters is contacting enough voters in those battleground states to make the polling data worthwhile. For it's main CNN/USA Today poll covering all 50 states, Gallup surveyed 1,003 "national adults," which produced a reasonably small margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent. For a more specific reading among "likely voters," Gallup shrank the pool to 575 adults, reflecting the fact that roughly half of eligible voters in America don't cast their ballots for president. That maneuver increased the sample error up to plus or minus 5 percent; the outer reaches of what most pollsters are comfortable with. Then to extract the battleground numbers, Gallup had to shrink the pool down even further. The result: the CNN/USA Today battleground number is based on surveying just 215 Americans, and carries a bloated seven percent margin of error.

Jeff Jones, managing editor of the Gallup Poll, says if the point of the entire poll was to zero in on the battleground states -- instead of it serving as a sidebar within a larger national survey -- the company would have contacted 600 likely voters. Polling junkies, considered yourselves warned.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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