C&E: How well does the polling industry police itself and should individual pollsters be doing more?
Hickman: This is a business any fool can get into and a lot have. There isn’t a real barrier to entry and it’s a big problem for people who do it right. What happens is that you end up competing on price rather than quality. Now, in their defense, a lot of people who sell cheap polls don’t know how to do it right. And you can actually use some of these inferior methodologies and still get it right 75 percent of the time. What people really pay us for is that other 25 percent. You’re also right to call it an industry because it’s not a profession. It’s disappointing to me that we don’t do a better job of regulating people and don’t push people out of the business.
Hogan: Too many campaigns just don’t get the importance of cellphones or of bilingual calling for Latinos, for instance. So when you’re competing against pollsters who aren’t factoring that into costs, it’s tough to beat them on cost.
Bolger: A lot of candidates also think they’re experts on polling because they’ve seen a poll once or twice. They don’t know what goes into writing a good questionnaire or testing messages. It’s tough because you have an audience that thinks they’re experts, but they’re really not.
C&E: So how do you regulate the industry better?
Hickman: Well, AAPOR (American Association of Public Opinion Research) has a model. It’s pretty difficult to get somebody censured, though, and it’s hard because you are dealing with somebody’s professional livelihood. I can only think of four or five people who have been censured in a significant way and in a couple of instances it didn’t seem to have hurt them at all. But all professional organizations struggle with this. It’s a difficult thing, but I think we should require folks to have some level of training or at least have worked for someone with some training.
Bolger: I have a different viewpoint than Harrison, which is that it’s really hard to do this because campaigns are basically the Wild West. You just have to be patient and hope that quality wins out in the long run. There are lots of folks who have tried this and realized it’s a lot harder than they thought. I just think it’s very difficult to say, “Here’s what you need to have done to enter into this business.” If that was the case, why wouldn’t you do the same for media consultants?
Hickman: You probably should.
Bolger: I’ve thought about this over the years, but I just don’t think there’s any good way to do it.
Hickman: I don’t necessarily disagree with that. I think if there was a good way to do it, it would have been done. Bob Teeter and Peter Hart tried to form a super subset of pollsters at one time who would agree to certain sets of standards and it just failed.
C&E: Shifting to 2012, is Obama as weak as his numbers suggest?
Lundry: I think there’s no doubt Obama is very weak. The problem is that he’s probably the greatest campaigner we’ve seen in a generation of politics. He’s got an amazing organization and defeating him isn’t going to be easy.
Bolger: Demographically, Obama has huge advantages. Whoever tells you the African-American vote is at risk of not turning out, that’s bullshit. African-Americans are going to turn out and strongly support Obama. And the Hispanic population is growing. We need approximately 60 percent of the white vote to win nationally in the popular vote. John McCain won whites by 12 points. George W. Bush won whites by 12 points in 2000. The reason Bush was basically in a tie nationally and McCain got blown out is that there were more minority voters last time. Another advantage for Obama is the map. If you look at the Electoral College, states won by both Kerry and Obama equal 246 electoral votes. That’s not too far from 270. Bush-McCain states equal 179. This is going to be a very close race. I don’t think Obama can lose big and I don’t think he can win big.
Hogan: I think Obama will also benefit from the fact that this is a choice. The economy is struggling, but once the president is able to make a contrast with the Republican nominee on the issues—tax cuts for the wealthy or cuts to Medicare, swing voters are overwhelmingly on Obama’s side.
Hickman: If the election were today, up or down on Obama, it would be a landslide against the president of historic proportions. If the nominee were Romney or Huntsman or someone in the center, I think it would be overwhelming. I think he’d get to 240 electoral votes, but he wouldn’t win.
Hogan: I don’t agree with that at all. What makes you say that?
Hickman: Well, if you look in the swing states, Obama’s approval rating is about 40 percent. In the Gore campaign in 2000, we won every close state except one. We would argue we won that one, too. But we won Iowa, Wisconsin and New Mexico. We won every state that was within two or three points. It’s just hard to run the table when you start off with a baseline of 40 percent approval for an incumbent. You’ve run out of the ability to argue that it’s George Bush’s fault at this point.
Hogan: I disagree. I think if it was a referendum, you could make a case that he was in trouble. But it’s not. It’s a choice.
Hickman: But that’s why I say if it were today. If the election were today it would be too tough.
Bolger: I don’t agree with either of you. I don’t think it would be a blowout, but it is a referendum. Presidential elections are referendums. Obviously there are certain thresholds you have to meet, but voters are trying to decide whether they want to rehire the person for another four years.
C&E: How about the House? Will these Congressional races turn on national issues?
Lundry: Yes. I think we’re going to have yet another nationalized House election. We’re increasingly looking at parliamentary government here in that these House elections are just like list-based parliamentary elections.
Bolger: But I think it’s very difficult for the Democrats to take back control of the House. They can pick up some seats, but reelected presidents don’t have long coattails. Nixon, Reagan, Clinton—none of them had long coattails. And secondly, this is the first time ever that Republicans in the modern era have an advantage drawing district lines. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of gerrymandered redistricting just because I think more competitive elections are good for business...uh I mean good for the country. (laughter)
C&E: Can we look at unemployment and the right direction/wrong track number and predict Obama’s fate?
Hickman: We’d be out of business if it was that simple.
Hogan: We’ve actually stopped asking right direction/wrong track in our polls. You’re getting about 80 percent wrong track. At this point it’s not even useful anymore.
Bolger: I think you’re wrong. It’s very useful. You look at the times right direction has been below 25 percent—1980, 1992, 2006 and 2008. This is the fifth time and it’s the most sustained negative mood in modern American history. Look at 2000 and 2004—you had 45-50 right direction/wrong track. Those were 50-50 elections.
Lundry: You talk to some political scientists and they’ll tell you, “Here are the three variables you need to predict the outcome.” There’s some truth in that, but those models will only explain 80 percent of the variance. The other 20 percent is where campaigns win and lose. And that’s why you still need tools like ours to figure out that unexplained variance.g