Liar Polls and the People Who Love Them

“There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.”
—Mark Twain

Many current public polling organizations have mastered the art of the liar poll. These polls are designed to reflect a result, so that voters are deceived into believing that certain candidates or issues are winning, when clearly they are not.

The reason this is effective is the same reason the Coliseum was filled when the A’s were winning and nearly everyone in the Bay Area right now is a Giants fan. In politics, as in sports, there is a segment of voters who simply want to be with the winner. It’s the bandwagon effect and the body politic has adopted it as a tactic to win elections.

It wasn’t always that way. But you have been completely misled if you believe the FOX News poll, the Gallup tracking poll, Rasmussen or other “public” indicators of future election results. Rest assured, you are not alone; the 24/7 cable news cycle is replete with this misinformation, as are the national news networks.

Here is the secret to “liar” polls. It depends on whom you are asking. The reason we have huge swings in the data is because every pollster has different criteria for who is a registered voter and who is a likely voter. The Gallup likely voter poll, for instance, represents a universe of voters that mirror the 2010 congressional elections. That election saw an over-representation of elderly, white and angry voters. Thus their current results do not reflect what will certainly be a higher turnout of reasonable and more diverse voters.

To Gallup’s credit, it actually has two national polls. One of likely voters—i.e. the liar poll—and one of registered voters, which is closer to reality but is still heavily weighted to white voters.

The best polls are those the public never sees, unless leaked by campaign operatives to help their candidate. These are the campaigns’ internal polls. These polls are designed to give consultants and their clients a window into the real-time thinking of voters. These polls are for strategic and tactical purposes. They not only tell you where the voters are at any given moment, but who can be persuaded and what persuades them.

The best pollster in the country, in my opinion, is David Binder out of San Francisco. But there are many other research companies that give good results. True professionals would never utilize a “liar” poll except to distract voters from the reality they are losing.

Another myth is the undecided voter. There are no really undecided voters at this point in an election. Nate Silver, a respected poll analyst, has coined the term “elastic voters.” These people are influenced one way or another by events, the media, campaign advertising and other factors of real life. These are the people who really determine the outcome of elections—as most of us lean heavily one way or the other.

A truly undecided voter at this stage in the process is either a liar, lazy, or completely incapable of making a decision. These people should do their country and community a favor and not vote at all.

Elastic voters, on the other hand, have an opinion but can change their mind depending on different circumstances. These are the people who gave President Obama a boost after the Democratic Convention, gave Mitt Romney a boost after the first debate and who, in all probability, will return to support the President now that we’re done with the last two debates.

The problem is that it will take several days for the polling to reflect that reality. News stories will continue to focus on the close contest nationally, which really isn’t that close. But if you really want to know what is happening, check out the blog Five Thirty Eight or Real Clear Politics, though the former is substantially more accurate.

Finally, the effect of liar polls on the local level is negligible. But internal polling is taking place in these local races all the time. These polls are rarely made public and it is often hard to find the source behind the survey if they become known. But they are used to inform the consultants of the messages they need to use on “elastic voters.”

So, when your mail arrives, there is a reason for the messages being used, a direct correlation to what influences the elastic voter. If you are a person who has already decided on whom and what to vote for, chances are you are in the same demographic as the “elastic voter.”

But go ahead and toss the mail away if you already made up your mind; it wasn’t designed for you, and your vote doesn’t matter much anyway.  It is the persuadable “elastic” voter who really determines our fate.

Rich Robinson is an attorney and political consultant in Silicon Valley. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.


  1. UPDATE FROM GALLUP POLL BLOG:  At this point we are not attempting to precisely estimate real world turnout or to correlate that to our internal sample percentages, but rather making the assumption that those at the top end of the scale are the most likely voters.

  2. I prefer good wine to bad. . .it is all in the making.  Similar to polling. says there is a 73.1% chance of President winning.  No poll has the President losing the electoral college.

    Though, admittedly, we have become the United States of Ohio.  If Romney wins he has a OH, he has a chance.  The President has other pathways to 271 electoral votes—but the easiest is if he wins OH.

    The President’s lead in OH is increasing—up to 5 % in most polls.  Even with Republican efforts to restrict voting, that should be enough.

    Of course, after the election—we should all be able enjoy a glass of good wine—-unless Romney does win—then at 47% of the people can just drink Thunderbird.

  3. I don’t think the election process, and especially the electoral college part of it, ever reckoned on the sort of pinpoint strategery that happens nowadays with daily polling, campaign managers, media spin, professional political consultants etc.
    Every time I hear about some poll or other I become a little more discouraged that the professional manipulators have rendered the average voter irrelevant.

  4. Rich, you old political lizard:

    Explain something.

    A while back, good government smarties declared the electoral college to be ignorant, dumb, stupid, and horrible, and then proceded to concoct a scheme to circumvent the electoral college.

    I recollect that plan was for a number of states (including California) to form a compact wherein they all agreed that they would cast their state’s electoral votes for the candidate who won the national popular vote.

    Under this scheme, if Romney wins the popular vote (currently +3 percentage points in many polls), then California’s electoral votes would go to Romney, regardless of any popular vote landslide for Obama in California.

    I haven’t heard much mention of this. Have people forgotten about this? Is this what is going to happen?

    • Most Democrats are ok with the popular vote determining the election.  If that were to occur a lot more money would be spent in NY an CA by dems to run-up the vote.

      As it is, CA and NY are ignored—as all spending goes into the 5% of “elastic voters” in OH.

      Put Dems are good with the popular vote—imagine if we had it in place in 2000?  President Gore would have been so much better.

      • > If that were to occur a lot more money would be spent in NY an CA by dems to run-up the vote.

        Confirming that Democrats view NY and CA as “urban vote plantations.”

        And the “money” that would go to these plantations would certainly include vast gobs of federal government money from “Obama’s stash”:

        – disproportionate welfare benefits;
        – food stamps;
        – unemployment benefits to recognize especially impacted local industries;
        – special grants for favored local industries (can you say “Solyndra”)
        – “Lousiana Purchases” for CA and NY
        – “Cornhusker Kickbacks” for CA and NY
        – Obamaphones for all
        – “High Speed Rail” on top of “High Speed Rail” for NY and CA
        – federally subsidized “transit villages”
        – etc, etc

  5. In 2010, 538 “predicted” a margin of 53 seat pick-up, but noted that because there is less polling in house races and national trends have an impact.  That said, their predictive model noted a 95% chance that the seats would change between 29 and 81.  A large variable (but if you want 95% certainty, it has to be a large swath). 

    In the Senate races in 2010 they were right in all but three races.  The CO race which the Dem won by less than 1%, 538 had predicted a Reep victory by 1%.  The NV race—which was flawed due to pollsters failure to account for Latinos (which is happening in this national election), and the AL seak won by Lisa Murkoski—a write in candidate in a very close race.  In all 538 predicted a pick-up of 7 Reep seats, they picked-up 6.

    In the Presidential Race in 2008, they were spot-on—except for Indiana, which went for Obama and were within 1% of the popular vote prediction.

    Of course, none of this matters except to give people an ideal of what is really happening in this election, as opposed to following the idiotic FOX news narrative.

    In the final, analysis we still have elections for a reason and I believe, given the current predictive models that underrepresent the women’s vote and the latino vote (both of which are in Obama’s favor) that the President will win reelection.

    But, hey, let’s go through the exercise anyway.

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