The Science of Political Polling

Why is it that sometimes election exit polls seem to be right on the money, while other times election results can surprise even expert analysts? Polling experts explain how to conduct a reliable poll and what factors can influence a poll's outcome.

Guests:

Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center; director of Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Pew Global Attitudes Project

Charles Franklin, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; co-developer of Pollster.com

Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research

Missing the Boat on the New Hampshire Vote

Sen. Hillary Clinton celebrates her victory in the New Hampshire primary. i i

Sen. Hillary Clinton celebrates her victory in the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary in Manchester, N.H., on Tuesday. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
Sen. Hillary Clinton celebrates her victory in the New Hampshire primary.

Sen. Hillary Clinton celebrates her victory in the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary in Manchester, N.H., on Tuesday.

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

The votes are all counted in New Hampshire, and it's not just the losing candidates who are seeking to regain their balance.

Pollsters and pundits are grasping to understand how they got things so wrong on the Democratic side as the primary season accelerates.

It was just a few days ago when ABC's Charlie Gibson reported there was high anxiety in Hillary Clinton's camp and CBS's Chip Reid said polls showed Barack Obama surging ahead.

So, what happened?

'How Do You Not Report That?'

"I would argue — and I remain confident — that the polls were right at the time they were taken," says political reporter Jackie Calmes.

Those polls would be the same ones that showed Obama ahead by anywhere from five to 13 points — and propelled Calmes' front-page story in the Wall Street Journal headlined "Clinton Braces for Second Loss."

But Calmes was far from alone this week — and did a lot of reporting beyond the polls. Obama was about to get a big union endorsement. Clinton was running out of money, and some Clinton advisers told Calmes they might urge the senator to withdraw if she lost big on Tuesday.

"So, you put all these together and then confirmation from the Clinton people that they expected to lose. How do you not report that?" Calmes asks.

Especially when all your competitors are rushing to report the results before they happen.

Most, but not all.

A Snapshot of a Moment

Among those pleading for restraint is John Walcott, the Washington bureau chief for the McClatchy chain's 31 newspapers, which include the Miami Herald and the Sacramento Bee.

"We concentrate too much on the horserace," Walcott says. "We are too quick to tell people about how things are going to play out before they've had a chance to weigh in."

Walcott says readers typically ignore disclaimers that polls are just a snapshot of a moment in time and can change in a matter of days — or even hours.

"People do read poll stories as predictive when, in fact, they're not, and I think those of us in the media tend to play to that.," he says.

Old hands say polls are best at illuminating how voters feel about candidates and issues — but not always how they'll actually vote.

Take it from Newsweek's Jonathan Alter. His essay on Hillary Clinton appears in the edition that's on the stands right now, and it didn't talk much about a Clinton inaugural address.

"I had sensed that she was increasingly, and the entire Clinton idea was increasingly, receding in the rear view mirror, and that we were in the midst of generational change," Alter says.

Things are now looking up for Clinton, but, even so, Alter doesn't retract his column's premise — in large part, he says, because he doesn't want to overreact in the other direction and write off Obama prematurely.

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