How to Read the Polls

You probably already caught this on Instapundit, but here’s what was buried deep in the link:

The Pew poll found the race at 46-46 among registered voters, and 47-46 Bush among likely voters. A Gallup poll being released Friday has Bush up 54-40 in a three-way matchup, with Ralph Nader (news – web sites) at 3 percent.

Big discrepencies like that one are why I like to stick to tracking polls, like Rasmussen. Forget the registered voters data — that’s always off. But even among likely voters, Pew shows a one-point race. Gallup has a 14-point spread. Obviously, one of these guys (if not both) is wrong.

Tracking polls are different. They publish every day, not once a week or a month. While they may suffer from some bad methodology (all polls do, period), they still allow you to see the broader trend. Because whatever bias a tracking poll has (again, all polls are biased), it tends to even out in the wash.

Perfect? Hardly. But probably the best thing going — even though all they can show you reliably isn’t hard numbers, but, once again, the broader trend.

When Pew shows a one-point race, I’m more likely to beleive that than I am Gallup’s big blow-out. But each poll is flawed, in that it tries to take a snapshot of a moving image. If you know anything about photography, you know that when you take pictures of runners, you usually end up with either a blurred background or a blurred subject. And if your shutter speed is fast enough to capture everything clearly, then you’ve captured such a brief moment in time that the photo reveals little about the race.

Tracking polls attempt to take a movie of a race. They can’t show the finish line, but you get a better idea of the back and forth between the runners — er, candidates.

Rasmussen has a pretty good track record (no pun intended), and they show a pretty close race. But the broader trend is that Bush’s convention bounce, once fading, looks to be gathering some CBS-generated steam.

With less than seven weeks to go, the trend is against Kerry. That can change overnight. But the closer we get to November 2, the fewer chances Kerry gets to reverse the trend, and the harder he’ll have to try.

Expect some big fireworks – duh.