Needle in a Haystack
10-23-2008
You may have heard about yesterday’s Associated Press poll which has Barack Obama leading John McCain by a single percentage point nationally, 44% to 43%. What I found most fascinating about this poll was the immediate impact it had on conservative talk radio. A sampling of radio shows revealed hosts around the country crafting a comeback narrative for McCain based solely on this particular result. Other polls showing a wider lead for Obama were quickly dismissed as the biased work of the liberal media.
 
It is certainly possible the AP’s data could turn out to be the most accurate snapshot of the national electorate out there. But within the context of the blizzard of polling data released this week, it is nonetheless an outlier. You can find one suggestion for why this is the case here.
 
It is human nature to select the poll which reflects the best possible outcome for your candidate. I witnessed plenty of Democrats engaging in this very same exercise with John Kerry in 2004. A result that provides hope can be a powerful tool for campaigns hoping to turn out their maximum vote, and for broadcasters trying to keep their audience tuned in.
 
Still, as I tell anyone who will listen every four years, your best bet is to resist the temptation to cherry-pick polling results, and instead focus on trends and averages, whether you are tracking a particular battleground state, or the entire nation. As I often note, these data can be easily located at websites like Pollster.com, RealClearPolitics.com, and FiveThirtyEight.com. They may not tell you what you want to hear, but they will give you a more realistic feel for your candidate’s chances.


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