A Word on Polls

Virginia Republicans are getting pretty jazzed-up this week over several polls showing Bob McDonnell expanding his lead over Creigh Deeds in the race for Governor. While this enthusiasm is great to see after a string of dispiriting losses for the GOP, I just want to remind my fellow Republicans to keep these numbers in context and try to understand exactly what these polls are showing us.

Polls are not strictly predictors. They do not foretell exactly what people are going to do. Rather, they are snapshots. They tell us what the results are likely to be should people show up on Election Day in the same numbers as the particular poll presumes they will.

In other words, the reliability of a poll is dependent upon the actual electorate closely resembling the pollsters’ sample. That is why it is important to look beyond the top-line results of these polls to understand what these polls are telling us about the potential electorate. That is also why the accuracy of a particular poll does not necessarily carry over from election to election. Quite simply, human beings are rather unpredictable.

For example, National Review’s Jim Geraghty notes that the SurveyUSA poll showing McDonnell up by 19% features an electorate breakdown of 33% Republican, 32% Democrat and 33% Independent, which is a pretty even split. While I don’t know what those numbers were in 2008, one can presume by the results that the numbers probably were not this even. Thus, SurveyUSA is not saying that McDonnell will win by 19%. They are saying that, as of today, if the electorate is split relatively evenly among these three groups, there is a strong likelihood of a big McDonnell victory.

It is also important not to confuse the partisan breakdown of these polls with the electoral numbers of past Party candidates. In other words, just because Barack Obama won 52% of the vote in Virginia in 2008 does not mean that 52% of the electorate were Democrats. Both candidates had some combination of Republican, Democrat and Independent voters. What we are looking for is which of these voters will return to the polls in 2009 and which ones will stay home. If these recent polls are to be believed, a large chunk of the coalition that delivered Virginia to a Democratic Presidential candidate for the first time in 44 years will have to be sitting on their hands this November 3rd.

If Republicans are to win this election, however, it is going to take more than simply hoping the other side decides not to show up. Remember, after all, that it was George H. W. Bush who claimed back in 1980 to have that “Mighty Mo” on his side, only to find himself on the losing end a few months later.

We have 12 more days in which to put up yard signs, make phone calls and talk to our friends and neighbors about why it is that we believe Bob McDonnell is the best man for the job of being Virginia’s next Governor.
As these polls continue to show a wave of momentum building for Bob McDonnell and his ticket-mates, I hope those margins will encourage Republicans not to rest on their laurels, but rather to be even more dedicated to ensuring that we turn out in large numbers and deliver a strong message to the nation on Election Day 2009.

Just remember folks, polls don’t vote. People do.

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