The Poll Truth Movement


I was just reading this Karl Rove piece that appeared yesterday in the Journal. In it Rove makes the case that Romney is the favorite to win the election next Tuesday. It’s a funny thing because not being a poll expert Rove’s arguments would make sense to me. He has various data that seems to hold up. Of course, I’m not totally wet behind the ears on these things. So I know a number of specifics points that he makes which are just wrong — either misleading and partial or, frankly, just totally false.

But on the big picture, what you hear nothing about in Rove’s argument is actual poll data. Actual state polls. There’s a heavy reliance on Gallup’s national numbers and various data points about early voting and crowd sizes and party ID. But actual polls? Not so much.The exception is this passage …

Desperate Democrats are now hanging their hopes on a new Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News poll showing the president with a five-point Ohio lead. But that survey gives Democrats a +8 advantage in turnout, the same advantage Democrats had in 2008. That assumption is, to put it gently, absurd.

Now this is just dishonest. This isn’t an outlier poll. And it’s hardly what the Democrats are hanging their hopes on. All the polls show Obama winning in Ohio. The polls after this one and before this one. Look at the numbers. The average is a bit over a 3 point margin for Obama. And they’ve actually been incredibly consistent.

I will say this. I take nothing for granted. The Republicans spinning this could be right. And I don’t just mean that as a throwaway line. They really could be (though hearing it from Rove doesn’t come very credibly to me because I remember his unskewing the polls in advance fo the 2006 midterm too.) I don’t know polling and statistical science well enough myself to make a strong independent judgment about the quality of different polls. But the simple fact is this. For Rove to be right, the overwhelming number of pollsters in the country have to have systematically misjudged their own numbers. There’s simply no other way to put it. Could be. But that’s a big bet to make.

Late Update: Longtime TPM Reader WM flagged this Rove quote from late October 2006 …

When host Robert Siegel pointed out to Rove that major public opinion polls showed Democrats with a significant advantage over Republicans during an October 24 interview broadcast on NPR’s All Things Considered, Rove told Siegel, “You may end up with a different math, but you’re entitled to your math, I’m entitled to the math.” Rove also said, “I’m looking at all these [races], Robert, and adding them up, and I add up to a Republican Senate and Republican House.”

Later Update: From Newsweek from 2006 …

Rove’s miscalculations began well before election night. The polls and pundits pointed to a Democratic sweep, but Rove dismissed them all. In public, he predicted outright victory, flashing the V sign to reporters flying on Air Force One. He wasn’t just trying to psych out the media and the opposition. He believed his “metrics” were far superior to plain old polls. Two weeks before the elections, Rove showed NEWSWEEK his magic numbers: a series of graphs and bar charts that tallied early voting and voter outreach. Both were running far higher than in 2004. In fact, Rove thought the polls were obsolete because they relied on home telephones in an age of do-not-call lists and cell phones. Based on his models, he forecast a loss of 12 to 14 seats in the House-enough to hang on to the majority. Rove placed so much faith in his figures that, after the elections, he planned to convene a panel of Republican political scientists-to study just how wrong the polls were.

His confidence buoyed everyone inside the West Wing, especially the president. Ten days before the elections, House Majority Leader John Boehner visited Bush in the Oval Office with bad news. He told Bush that the party would lose Tom DeLay’s old seat in Texas, where Bush was set to campaign. Bush brushed him off, Boehner recalls. “Get me Karl,” the president told an aide. “Karl has the numbers.”


Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of