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Morning Jay: Is Gallup Biased Against Obama?

6:00 AM, Jun 19, 2012 • By JAY COST
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 (b) Incompetents. These pollsters may or may not have an agenda, but they are just bad at what they do.

 (c) Competent, honest brokers. These pollsters know what they are doing, and put in a good faith effort to be fair.

I’m not interested in assigning pollsters to different groups today, but I will say that Gallup definitely falls into category (c). I am guessing Blumenthal would agree; indeed, the only reason he was able to conduct this analysis is because Gallup is so open about its methods, which really sets it apart from many.

By failing to note the broader context, Blumenthal’s conclusions paint Gallup in an unfairly negative light, potentially causing non-technical readers to dismiss it wrongly as hacky or incompetent.

5. All of this misses a much bigger point. Blumenthal’s criticism of Gallup is directed at its poll of adults, and specifically for having white adults comprise roughly 71 percent of its poll rather than roughly 68 percent. But what is not mentioned is that whites make up a larger share of the electorate than 68 or even 71 percent.

Even in 2008, when Obama generated a 27 percent increase in the black vote, whites still accounted for 74 percent of all voters. This means that, when it comes to measuring the electoral relevance of Obama’s job approval rating, the Gallup poll is still “skewed” toward the Democrats. It just happens to be less “skewed” than other polls.

There is a broad consensus among the major pollsters to focus on the political opinions of adults. This is a perfectly defensible choice, as the attitude of all adults is sociologically interesting, but it can lead to serious problems when one is trying to draw conclusions about an upcoming election. A significant portion of respondents in all-adult polls is not going to vote, and these non-voters generally prefer Democrats to Republicans. Thus, polls of all adults tend to overstate the Democratic position vis-à-vis the upcoming election. (And yes, even Gallup’s poll of adults does this.)

Blumenthal’s argument is poorly served by failing to mention this context. It is more than a little strange to call out Gallup for being too "anti-Obama" when in fact all polls of adults, including Gallup's, tend to be too "pro-Obama." At the very least, it is appropriate to mention that all-adult polls tend to be too bullish on Democratic electoral prospects.

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In conclusion, Blumenthal has completed a carefully researched, persuasive technical study of the assumptions that Gallup makes when it polls the population, and how those assumptions create an anti-Obama house effect. Yet by failing to take in the broader context, his analysis winds up being more prejudicial than probative, giving a false sense that Gallup does not deserve its sterling reputation.

Gallup is not above criticism, but it is nevertheless a fine pollster that is trying to get things right, and Blumenthal offers no practical basis to evaluate whether its methodological assumptions are unreasonable. He would have been better served by applying this same rigorous method to multiple polls at once, thus enabling us to judge Gallup in relation to other pollsters, rather than some ideal that nobody practically attains.

Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.

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