Can Those Polls Be Trusted? We're being told that Sen. John McCain is the "underdog" while Sen. Barack Obama is ahead — but pollsters say the gap is narrowing just as the race comes to a close. But how accurate are these polls?
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Can Those Polls Be Trusted?

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Can Those Polls Be Trusted?

Can Those Polls Be Trusted?

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen. We're in the final laps of the presidential race. The pollsters are out in full force filling our heads with percentages and points. We're being told that Senator John McCain is the underdog and Senator Barack Obama is ahead, but pollsters say the gap is narrowing. It's not unusual. That's exactly what happened in four of the last five presidential elections. To help us figure out what the latest poll numbers really mean, we're joined by the editor of Pollster.com, Mark Blumenthal. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MARK BLUMENTHAL (Editor, Pollster.com): Great to be here.

HANSEN: The gap seems to be narrowing between John McCain and Barack Obama. Is it?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: I think it probably has a point or two since the very, very big lead that Barack Obama had two or three weeks ago. We are all in the midst of speculating about whether it's narrowing further. I'm not convinced that whatever changes we're seeing are very dramatic. I wouldn't be surprised if Barack Obama ends up winning by a narrower margin than the polls are showing now. He has a bigger percentage of the vote than any Democrat's had in a long time and that means there are some people who are pondering a vote for a Democrat who haven't in some time. And they may move back between now and Tuesday, some of them may.

HANSEN: Traditionally, does the gap tend to tighten a bit as Election Day gets closer?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Generally speaking, the frontrunner - the margin narrows a little bit, although that's looking at where things were in September or early October as compared to Election Day. We have just a couple of days left now, and so I don't think there's that much room for change.

HANSEN: The media focuses a lot on national polls. Do they really mean anything? Or shouldn't polls actually be concentrated, maybe, on the battleground states mainly?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Well, that's technically true, and I would say a few words in defense of national polls. One, the national margin is showing Obama on - sort of matched up on our side at about six points. At that level, the electoral vote will work itself out. You know, the national vote translates pretty neatly. When the race gets really close, when it's as close as it was the last two presidential elections, then the state-by-state polls really become crucial. Right now, we have Obama ahead pretty comfortably in states that will easily take him over 270 electoral votes.

HANSEN: Will the race come down to just a few states? And if so, which states will they be, do you think?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: As of the snapshot today, it looks as if Barack Obama's in a position where, you know, he has electoral votes to spare if everything plays out the way it looks now. But the states that are probably the most important would be Virginia, Colorado, possibly New Mexico. The McCain campaign is making a lot of noise about Pennsylvania and spending a lot of time there. And they clearly believe that that is a state that they need to move in order to make the race competitive. Our trend estimate now for Pennsylvania is at about nine points and has been in double digits for the last week or two. So it is narrowing there a little bit.

HANSEN: Let me talk about Election Day and exit poll numbers. In 2004, the pollsters had it wrong. They had Kerry ahead of Bush, but the final outcome was obviously the opposite. The news organizations were using these exit poll numbers. There was a correction of these numbers. Will it be different this time?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Well, one of the things that I know will be different is that the midday partial semi-weighted numbers that we all got over the Internet four years ago will not leak. They will be kept in a sealed room until something like five o'clock, at which point they will leak, no doubt. The reason that it's worth looking at exit polls when all is said and done is to try to help us figure out who voted, why they voted, the issues that mattered to them. I'm not sure that the evening, the networks place as great a weight on using those to call the election as those of us who get a chance to peek at the leaked numbers do.

HANSEN: What's your take on this election? Has it been unpredictable?

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: It's been - certainly the primaries were challenging to pollsters. It was 11 months ago that we woke up on Saturday and Sunday morning and saw Barack Obama leading by margins of eight, nine, ten points in New Hampshire, and three days later Hillary Clinton was the victor. I don't think the conditions are the same here as in that primary, but we've got to be careful and never say never.

HANSEN: Mark Blumenthal is editor of Pollster.com. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

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