Romney in the 2nd district and the pitfalls of internal polls

Polls aren’t just estimates of how people are thinking.

When it comes to internal polls that are put out to the public, as John Edwards’s former pollster put it, “Out of a big stack of acorns, I was trying to pick out a few good ones that they could pass along to other people, you know, to keep them working.”

For this reason and others detailed below, one has to be wary of them, including a new one on the 2012 presidential race in Maine.

According to a leaked internal poll from a Republican pollster, Romney leads Obama in Maine’s second congressional district by 49-44%.

The only reason why a congressional district poll even matters is that Maine, like Nebraska, allows for a state’s electoral votes to be split.

Not surprisingly, leaders of Maine’s Democratic and Republican parties differ in their assessments. As this paper reported:

Lizzy Reinholt, spokeswoman for the Maine Democratic Party, called NMB Research’s results, which were widely different from what other public polls have shown, highly suspect. . .

Maine GOP Chairman Charlie Webster said Friday that Romney’s lead in northern Maine didn’t surprise him and that he has expected Romney to do well there for several months.

“I’ve believed that from the beginning,” said Webster. “Even three months ago our numbers kept getting better and better.”

But there are some pitfalls with this poll

One, we have no idea how large the sample is and thus the margin of error.

While reports indicate that 500 people were polled and the margin of error was plus or minus 4%, no one knows how many people were polled in the second district. If 250 were polled, the margin of error would larger than that.

Two, the pollster hasn’t released information needed to assess it, including if they included cell phones and called back households which didn’t initially answer the phone. Those methodological choices affect poll results and that’s why the American Association for Public Opinion Research calls for them to be disclosed.

Third, there’s the basic pitfall with internal polls.

Campaign pollsters try to get it right, since their candidates need good information. But mostly they keep their data to themselves.

Here’s a rule of thumb: When internal polls are  not just internal, they’re always positive for a campaign.

Why do campaign pick out some polls from the “big stack of acorns” and release them?

Again, here’s Edwards’s pollster:

Testifying under oath in the trial of former presidential contender John Edwards, Harrison Hickman, Edwards’s onetime pollster, said that the campaign used public polls as “propaganda.” Even though he privately counseled that Edwards had almost no chance of winning the 2008 Iowa caucuses, he said he monitored all the polls and sent “the ones that were most favorable because [campaign aides] wanted to share them with our supporters.”

Campaigns do lots and lots of polls, but only release a few.

And why do they release them? Because they’re trying to send a message, to try to shape press reports, help raise money, discourse their opponent’s supporters, and keep their supporters motivated.

In the case of this second district poll on the presidential race, it’s hard to know how seriously to take it. But given the issues with it in particular and the pitfalls of internal polls, my advice is to give more credence to public polls.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.