Nate Silver on internal vs. independent polls (i.e., did Romney’s team really believe its own hype?) (UPDATED 12/4)

A new article in The Washington Post sheds some light on the obviously effective internal polling of the Obama reelection team: Presidential campaigns rehash what worked and what did not in race for the White House.

Regular readers know that I was arguing even before the election that the likely voter models were screening out far too many Americans who were likely in fact to vote. That became more and more obvious as we lumbered toward election day.

At a forum last week at Harvard, Daniel Axelrod and others spoke about campaign strategy. From The Washington Post piece, regarding the Obama campaign’s amazingly high level of nightly polling:

The reason [they were so confident]: Massive amounts of their own polling — not just nationally and in individual states, but in nightly surveys of 9,000 likely voters across 10 battleground states.

“All three of them were saying the same thing . . . in a way that gave us real confidence,” campaign manager Jim Messina said in remarks released Monday. “We thought we knew exactly where the electorate was.”

Another thing they learned, said Obama strategist David Axelrod, was that as many as 20 percent of the people who were actually going to vote were not being picked up as “likely voters” in publicly available surveys.

“It just becomes a big horse-race story, and you guys don’t even know where the horses are,” Axelrod said.

Time for Gallup and other organizations to revisit their likely voter models, as I’ve said repeatedly.


Another dry, wordy, must-read from Nate Sliver at FiveThirtyEight about the most puzzling question of campaign 2012: Why were Romney and his team so surprised by the election night results, when statistical models showed them trailing significantly in the states that mattered most?

Check out When Internal Polls Mislead, a Whole Campaign May Be To Blame.

The main takeaway:

Nonetheless, the seeming inaccuracy of Mr. Romney’s internal polls ought to present a warning to future campaigns. The problems with internal polls may run deeper than the tendency for campaigns to report them to the public in a selective or manipulative way. The campaigns may also be fooling themselves.

Silver goes through the numbers, some based on Noam Scheiber’s reporting at The New Republic: Exclusive: The Internal Polls That Made Mitt Romney Think He’d Win.

Assuming Scheiber really did see some of the Romney campaign’s internal polls, the differences from reality are striking. The internal poll had Romney up 2.5 in Colorado and 3.5 in New Hampshire, for example. He lost those states by 5.4 and 5.6, respectively. Those differences are hard to account for by any logical measure.

I wonder if the Romney campaign systematically “unskewed” the polls to match a predetermined — and erroneous — notion that whites would surge to the polls and massive numbers of minorities would stay home?

The most interesting parts of Silver’s latest post are the discussions of the politics of internal polling — the decisions to selectively release or to preview on background certain numbers for gullible reporters who assume that the campaigns have the real numbers. Here:

But when campaigns release internal polls to the public, their goal is usually not to provide the most accurate information. Instead, they are most likely trying to create a favorable news narrative — and they may fiddle with these assumptions until they get the desired result.

The Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman, who testified under oath in the federal case against John Edwards, put this bluntly, describing the release of internal polls to the news media as a form of “propaganda”:

Hickman testified that when circulating the polls, he didn’t much care if they were accurate. “I didn’t necessarily take any of these as for — as you would say, for the truth of the matter. I took them more as something that could be used as propaganda for the campaign,” the veteran pollster said.