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The Problem of Polling Intangibles

Chris Cillizza, who blogs about politics at the Washington Post, wrote a defense of the seemingly off-topic questions—such as “On a ship in a storm, who would you rather have as the captain?”–asked by the WaPo’s latest poll that I want to find convincing, but just can’t quite get there. Here is how Cillizza explains the controversy, and the Post’s justification:

The response — via Twitter, Facebook and even email (yes, people still email sometimes) — was overwhelming and (stunningly, at least to us) negative. And it went something like this: “Who cares about who the better ship captain is? This has NOTHING to do with the election.”

Ditto for other questions in the Post-ABC poll like “who do you think would be the more loyal friend” and “who would you rather take care of you when you’re sick”….

We’ve long maintained that the vote for president, more so than any other vote, is a feel vote.  That is, the up-for-grabs voters don’t simply go to the websites of the two candidates, make a check next to every issue they agree with Obama or Romney on and then add up the columns — voting for whichever of the two men had more checks to his name.  If they did, George Bush wouldn’t likely have beaten either Al Gore or John Kerry.

Count me among those who believe that voters are generally rational but that the presence of some irrationality–call it instinct if you want–plays a role, especially in close elections. But here’s the thing: the WaPo/ABC poll didn’t just ask voters who they’d rather have dinner with or take care of them when they’re sick. The poll also asked… who they’re going to vote for. Now, I think the poll pretty effectively demonstrated that voters can be all over the place when it comes these questions. But if you value the ship captain question, or the loyal friend question, you have to confront the fact that it’s either a worthless barometer–or the question of who voters plan to vote for is a worthless barometer. That latter one is a pretty difficult thing for a pollster to confront.

Yet it’s hard to avoid this problem. Among likely voters, Obama wins this poll by one point, and among registered voters by six. All the other questions Cillizza is defending were asked of registered voters. Yet Obama wins the ship captain question by only three—half his advantage among registered voters when asked who they’ll vote for. Obama wins the who “would make a more loyal friend” question by fourteen points, and the “take care of you if you were sick” question by thirteen. On who voters would rather have dinner with, Obama wins by nineteen. So respondents are telling the Post that they obviously don’t care who they’d rather have dinner with, be around when they’re sick, or be friends with.

So how do we make the argument that these questions are relevant? And if we argue that these questions are relevant, don’t we have to discard the “who are you going to vote for” question? And if we discard the “who are you going to vote for” question, aren’t we kind of giving up on polling voters?

Again, there is absolutely a case to be made that a certain amount of instinct or irrationality creeps into voters’ minds when they choose a president. But there’s another name for those metrics: intangible, which Oxford defines as “unable to be touched or grasped.” It seems they are still unable to be polled, as well.



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