Monday, December 24, 2012

DSO The Myth

Most Credit Managers are judged, in large part, by the metric of Days Sales Outstanding, or DSO.  It's a convenient metric, easy to understand by most people .. or so it can seem.  The DSO is useful, but not by itself. First, in pure collections terms you want to understand how much of your AR is current or delinquent (and how late), you need to track your average payment terms, and you need to track documentation for accounts contacted - there's a great difference between an account working to clear its balance and one which won't answer calls or emails.  The trouble, for me at least, is that Credit Managers answer to Finance Directors and Sales-focused General Managers/VP's.  So, we tend to be told to 'keep it simple' and report our DSO month to month.

My company is growing, which is good.  But DSO's formula works out to a simple fact; if you collect more than your company ships in a month, AR goes down and so does DSO.  But if your company ships more than you collect, AR goes up and so does DSO.  If a collector is not bringing in money, then rising DSO can indicate poor performance, but if the DSO goes up in spite of solid collections because of large orders shipping at the end of the month, rising DSO can be misleading.

If a Credit Manager wants to avoid being judged by just one metric, be it DSO or another metric, he or she needs to make sure alternate metrics are established for performance reviews.  If you can show how other factors like Percentage of AR Beyond 60 Days, Collection Effectiveness Index (CEI), and Days Delinquent Sales Outstanding (DDSO), you can not only protect yourself against being judged by a single, volatile metric, and establish your department's reputation on a broader base of results.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Online MBA 2012

Let’s start with the obvious; if you have any interest in earning an MBA, you either mean to improve your value to your company, to increase your potential for pay and position, or both.  Let’s be clear – if you earn an MBA worth anything, you will be considered for jobs which pay well and carry great responsibility, but where you will be expected to produce great value for your employer.  So if you want to pursue an MBA, you need to make sure that it will expand your skill set, and suit your personal career path.

Before discussing the Online MBA, I want to be clear about the three basic kinds of MBA (not how they are earned).  The most common MBA is the basic operational MBA, where business theory is the main focus.  Another type is the Executive MBA, which is designed to groom fast-track performers for C-suite responsibilities.  The third type, and the newest, is the Professional MBA, a type meant for candidates with management experience, who want to augment practical knowledge and enhance cross-team performance.  That third type offers a bridge between low- and mid-level management positions to senior leadership, and also provides a means for working professionals to raise their educational credentials.  The professional MBA curriculum is also based far more heavily on practical experience than on simple theory.  And the best Online MBA programs are focused on these working professionals, who not only represent the widest and deepest demographic for potential MBA candidates, but whose contributions provide the most realistic appraisal of business and management theories.

Therefore, you should not consider earning an MBA online if you have just finished your undergraduate studies; you would do better with a face-to-face program where you are totally immersed in theory and can develop the necessary people skills on campus.  Similarly, the Executive MBA candidate is not advised to pursue an Online MBA, in part because of course selection but also because the Executive MBA program includes vital Networking opportunities.  The Online MBA, however, is very effective for the professional MBA program, because working professionals already have developed people skills, they need to be able to work and study in a manner that is most time-efficient and which produces the most business value. 

This brings us to what Online program to choose.  Essentially, your choice should follow three factors – what will a potential employer look for, what skills do you need or want to add to your set, and what combination of price, convenience and standards are most comfortable for you?  This is where my rankings come in.  I’m not telling anyone where to go to school, but the list and the considered factors may be useful in your own decision.  Accreditation, tuition, number of concentrations, average GMAT score, student to faculty ratio, and similar elements can help you find the best fit for your decision.   

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Top 25 Online MBA Programs 2012

Every year since 2008 I have posted my opinion of the Top 25 Online MBA programs. I determine these rankings by a weighted system which uses information from the schools’ websites and the AACBS (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business), which is the premiere accreditation agency for business schools, both in the United States and the world. With no disrespect intended for schools which are not members of the AACSB, in my opinion that designation sets apart the serious programs from the run-of-the-mill schools. This year the number of AACSB-  accredited schools is down to 92 which offer an MBA degree with all or nearly all classes online; some of the schools require an on-campus orientation, a foreign trip to a profiled nation, or a very few selected courses to be taken on campus, such as case competitions. My ranking uses a weighted evaluation of fifteen categories of information, with weighting based on criteria which will be of value to students in the quality of education and resources available to them, as well as cost and convenience.  In past years I put too much detail into explaining the categories, so this year I am trying to keep it simple. In this post I will simply announce the top 25 with a brief review of the factors considered in their scoring, and in subsequent posts I may comment on the Online MBA as compared to more traditional versions.

2012Top Online MBA Schools

1.     Nebraska at Lincoln (#4 in 2011, #5 in 2010) 
2.     Oklahoma State (#7 in 2011, #25 in 2010) 
3.     Alabama (#14 in 2011, #8 in 2010) 
4.     Fayetteville State (#12 in 2011, #13 in 2010)
5.     Mississippi State (#11 in 2011, unranked 2010) 
6.     North Dakota (unranked 2010-11, #10 in 2009)
7.     Western Kentucky (#17 in 2011, unranked 2010)
8.     Massachusetts – Amherst (#6 in 2011, #17 in 2010)
9.     East Carolina (#18 in 2011, unranked 2010)
10. Florida (#1 in 2011, unranked 2010)
11. Texas – San Antonio (#15 in 2011, #23 in 2010)
12. Texas – Dallas (unranked 2010 and 2011, #11t in 2009)
13. Indiana – Bloomington (#13 in 2011, unranked 2010)
14. Wisconsin – Whitewater (unranked in 2011, #2 in 2010)
15. Wyoming (#10 in 2011, unranked 2010)
16. Wisconsin – LaCrosse (#25 in 2011, unranked 2010)
17. Morehead State (unranked 2010 and 2011, #7t in 2009)
18. Houston – Victoria (unranked 2011, #14 in 2010)
19. Louisiana – Monroe (#19 in 2011, unranked 2010)
20. Texas – Tyler (unranked 2009-2011)
21. Quinnipiac (unranked 2011, #11 in 2010)
22. Tennessee Tech (#20 in 2011, unranked 2010)
23. South Dakota (unranked 2009-2011)
24. Texas – Pan American (#24 in 2011, unranked 2010)
25. Southern Arkansas (unranked 2009-2011)

Weighting Categories

1. Average GMAT score (14.00%)
2. MBA in-state tuition (13.00%)
3. Minimum GMAT score (12.00%)
4. MBA out-of-state tuition (11.00%)
5. Number of available concentrations (9.50%)
6. Minimum Duration (8.50%)
7. Operating Budget (7.50%)
8. # Faculty FTE (6.50%)
9. Student/Faculty Ratio (6.00%)
10. AACSB Accreditations (3.50%)
11. Budget/Student (3.00%)
12. Student Body Size (2.50%)
13. Undergraduate in-state Tuition (1.50%)
14. Undergraduate out-of-state Tuition (1.00%)
15. Degree levels offered

A Quick Word on Factors and Weights

This list of ranks is not meant to tell you where you should go to school.  It’s meant to offer a guide of schools which generally should provide a quality education and expand your skill set, at reasonable cost and with appropriate resources.  The school best suited for your career growth will need to meet your personal goals and provide support and opportunity where you choose.  The online MBA, for example, is a degree suited far better for the working professional seeking to expand an extant skill set rather than an inexperienced person who just finished their undergraduate studies.  As a result, you don’t need your hand held by having face access to your professor, but you should get timely and substantive answers to emails and class discussions.  You don’t need to schmooze in a student lounge with classmates, but you should have the means to make contact with other MBA candidates and quickly assess suitability for virtual teams on projects and for your case competition team.  You will expect to work independently, but you will still need access to timely resources to support research and develop your reports.  Most of all, you need to be able to tailor your MBA to meet your career goals, including competitive work with and against fellow students with superior abilities and intellect.  These rankings are meant to identify the schools which most effectively offer a package suited to such goals.

Good luck.

Monday, December 17, 2012

On Evil

We are all still in shock, I think, from the terrible events in Newtown, Connecticut.  When such things happen, in places like this board it is inevitable that those tho do not believe in God will take the moment to mock Him.  But I see it differently.

Evil has been here for as long as we have been here.  Just in our own history, we have learned much, too much, about rape, slavery, murder, genocide, and countless terrors of a dismal variety throughout human history.  While we sometimes hear how we have 'advanced' and 'evolved', still from time to horrible time we are forced to witness the depths to which men may sink.  Surely we must admit that evil exists.

Fortunately, we also know that good exists.  The very day of those awful murders, I watched on television as some children were able to smile a bit, play with each other, and reassure their own parents.  And for all the horror we have experienced, we have also been able, most of us, to be reminded the precious value of our family and children.  We have relearned something of community, and the fact that our neighbors, our nation, our humanity, still count in our hearts and minds.  Some good refuses to die, even in times like this.

I believe that God takes responsibility for evil, because it happens as a result of human free will.  We are allowed our freedom, and for that freedom to be real it must be allowed even when it leads to things like this.  No sermon here from me about how we could have prevented it, no lecture about how a deed here or a prayer there would have changed things  - we control some things, but none of us has that kind of power, however much we may wish we did.  God allows us to make choices of consequence, even when that consequence is terrible.  This is also why I believe there is a better place afterwards, where Time is something other than as we know it here, so that those children who went on ahead of their parents will be waiting for them as if it were mere moments they were apart.  God is good, and so has prepared a better resolution than the pain and torment we so often bring upon ourselves.  And it is that promise of reunion, and of safety in the permanent home which God offers to those parents whose pain would otherwise be impossible to bear.

I know some little bit.  When my daughter was an infant, on three occasions she fell ill with a very high fever which did not respond to medication.  The fact that she might be taken from us was a pain I do not like to remember, and I can only imagine how much worse the loss is for those families whose loss became their reality.  Platitudes and false hope are worthless in such a place and time, so I do not write these words casually, but with firm conviction and faith that my Lord will make solace known to these families.

The strange thing about evil, is that it is like pain.  No one touched by it is pleased, but it passes, even if it is sharp and cruel in its moment.  But we must be there for those suffering from evil, just as we would for a friend in pain.  It may seem small, but in such times there is great value in being there for each other, meeting every need in whatever we can, whether we have the word or are silent, whether we think we understand or recognize something beyond our ken.

Believers know God is our father, but when facing evil we do well to remember we are family to each other, all of us.  

Friday, November 30, 2012

Thoughts on the Lottery

Wednesday night the folks at Powerball drew for a jackpot worth, at most recent estimate, some $588 million.  And as always happens when a lottery jackpot gets really big, the media made sure to give it lots of coverage, all the while chiding folks for buying lottery tickets.  But that hypocrisy can be discussed at some other time.  For this essay, I would like to address the common claim that a lottery is, quote, .a tax for people bad at math’, unquote.  I submit that many rational people would take a different view of eth lottery.
To start, though, let’s discuss taxes.  While most folks speak of taxes in a derogatory manner, most os us recognize that taxes are not always bad.  Consider, for example, taxes used to support fire and police departments, maintain roads and bridges, and keep schools open.  It’s understood by pretty much all rational adults that some taxes are necessary and good.  So, from the start we should reject the idea that calling the lottery a ‘tax’ is automatically a bad thing.  It would only be bad, if we could show that the lottery was a bad tax.

OK, so what would make a tax bad?  To my mind, there are three ways a tax can be bad.   First, the tax could be a heavy burden, hard for the taxpayer to be able to pay and still make a decent living.  Second, the tax could be collected for an immoral purpose, like the taxes raised by nobles in the past for no better reason than to build palaces and provide luxury for themselves.  And third, a tax could be imposed without the consent of the governed, and as such would be punitive.  A lottery is none of those things.  First, no one is compelled to purchase even a single lottery ticket, so the last argument about consent of the taxpayer falls quickly – the lottery is the most fair tax in existence, since only those who approve ever pay it.  Also, the price of a lottery ticket is as little as one dollar, the price depending depending on the game.  But more than that, no one has to spend money they can’t afford on lottery tickets, and there’s even a toll-free number on the back of the scratch-off tickets for those who may be concerned about gambling addiction.  I don’t recall my 1040 form ever offering counseling on how to pay less income tax.

So what is the lottery money used for?  In some cases, education, though admittedly that claim by states has run hard against facts at times.  But where lottery money is not used for education, it goes into the general fund, which at least avoids the stigma of being directly associated with some of government’s more irresponsible ventures. 

Taken as a whole then, lotteries may not seem like good wholesome activities to some people, but you can’t really make an effective argument that lotteries are immoral or wrong.  That leaves skeptics pointing out obvious facts such as the high odds against winning the jackpot, while they ignore the obvious fact that we already know those facts.  We are well aware that in all likelihood buying lottery tickets means we are giving away money that we might otherwise use to productive purpose.

Here’s the way I see it:  I know that in any realistic sense, I am throwing away a few bucks a week playing the lottery.  But I don’t waste money on Starbucks, bottled water, or ‘organic’ anything, so anyone telling me I’m wasting money is a hypocrite in need of a slap in the face.  The thing is, if someone wants to spend five bucks on a cup of coffee, or a loaf of bread, or so on, they get their return in the immediate enjoyment of their product.  So do I, in the anticipation that maybe, just maybe, I will suddenly have enough money that financial considerations will no longer be necessary,  Even the ‘small’ jackpots would be enough to set me up for life, and more to the point, take care of my family and give my daughter a financial foundation – heck, give HER kids a solid financial foundation.  It’s worth a buck or two to imagine that could happen.  And let’s be clear, if you spend your money on a coffee, that’s it – the enjoyment maxes out at however you enjoy what you bought.  I accept that my lottery tickets will probably be worthless paper, but I also know that every so often someone really does win the big money, and if I buy a ticket that might- just might – be me.   Skeptics like to point out that the odds of getting hit by lightning are better than the odds of winning Powerball, but they forget that when the weather gets stormy, you can protect yourself by taking shelter. And if there’s a chance that spending a buck or two might bring in more money than I could make in a hundred salaried jobs, well, a smart man sees the opportunity there.

Play on.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Grand Theft Nation

Last Tuesday night, Mitt Romney conceded the Presidential election to Barack Obama.  Obama, ever the snide, self-serving narcissist he is, was quick to praise himself and promise even more of the policies which nearly bankrupted America in his first term.

This was a strange election.  Not the GOP losing, but the fact that Romney and his supporters were blind-sided.  In 2008, most Republicans saw it coming but this year most Republicans genuinely believed Romney would win.  And there was reason to believe as well, with most national polls showing Romney ahead until the last few days before the election.  Exactly what happened to give Obama a second term will be examined and discussed for quite some time.  Either the national polls were wrong until the very end, literally millions of voters changed their mind in a matter of days for no significant cause, or something else happened that defies easy explanation.  The sneering derision from the Left, that America is leaving the GOP behind, is a malicious lie, but something happened.

One thing that does annoy me, though, is the character of the election.  Obama’s job performance was so abysmal that he certainly could not be honest about his record and win re-election, but there is also no question that Obama lied, pretty much throughout the election campaign, about what Mitt Romney stood for and what he meant to do.  My wife is Asian and some of my friends are Hispanic, and they noted that a lot of TV and radio ads in non-English language which claimed outrageous lies, like Romney wanting to abolish Medicare or defund school programs for at-risk children, that he wanted to deport all immigrants or give billions in tax cuts just to rich people.  There’s no justification for such outrageous behavior, even if Obama wants to hide behind the canard that the PACs putting out those ads did not represent his position.

The United States is healthiest when political debate is lively and substantive.  Demonizing the opinions and beliefs of half a hundred million voters just so you can win an election is not merely unethical, it damages the framework for effective decision-making, and plays all too often into the hands of demagogues.  If President Obama wants to establish a legacy of honor and to build genuine accomplishments, he better back off his hate speech and start listening to other opinions besides his own. 

Monday, November 05, 2012

An Alternative To Nate Silver: Here Are The Real Odds

Back in 2008, a man who established his reputation with Baseball statistics was lionized as a political guru for correctly “predicting” the winner of 49 of the 50 states.  He did this through aggregation of state polls, and a formula which, speaking bluntly, was based heavily on subjective weighting of polls he liked.  On his side, it’s true Silver was accurate in 2008.  Silver, however, doesn’t like anyone bringing up his results in the 2010 mid-term election.  This year, Silver has announced that President Obama has an almost ninety percent chance of winning re-election.  He has also, rather dishonestly, tried to hedge his predictions by saying that turnout will decide the actual odds (hidden well below his bold headline), and admitted that if the state polls used invalid weighting on party participation, then the election results may be very different from his forecast.  His supporters have even gone so far in recent days as to demand that Silver’s system be judged on the process rather than whether his predictions come true.  Leaving all this aside, the question may reasonably be asked, about what the odds really are for Obama and Romney.  There is a reasonable method available for determining those odds.

Whenever a percentage chance is given for something happening, it claims that of a hundred possible outcomes, this one will happen ‘x’ number of times.  So we can figure up the odds by working out what each candidate needs, and how they could get there.

First, President Obama.  By this date, there’s really no doubt that the District of Columbia and the following states will be won by Obama:  California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, most of Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.  That gives Obama DC plus 13 states, for 178 Electoral Votes, meaning he needs another 92 EV to win re-election.

Next, Governor Romney.  There is no doubt that Romney will win the following states:  Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming.  That gives Romney 24 states for 220 Electoral Votes, meaning he needs another 50 EV to win the White House.

There are 13 battleground states plus 1 EV in Maine that is contested, for 140 Electoral Votes.  From the start we can see that neither candidate needs to sweep all the battleground states to win. 

Before going on, there is a controversy which will sort itself out tomorrow.  Many state polls have given heavy advantage in weighting to Democrats, even when previous elections show no such disparity in voting by party.  As a result, there is suspicion among conservatives that the state polls are inaccurate in stating actual voter support.  So the question comes down to whether turnout will be like 2008, 2004, or somewhere in between.  For each of the states, therefore, we can look at the actual part weights from 2004 and 2008, then use that to tell us what we might see this year.  Here’s how each state plays out, starting with the highest EV states still contested:

Pennsylvania:  20 EV, polls either even or show Obama slightly ahead
08:  Obama                  04:  Romney                Mix: Obama
Ohio:  18 EV, polls even or show Obama slightly ahead
08:  Obama                  04:  Romney                Mix:  Romney
Michigan:  16 EV, polls show Obama ahead but close
08:  Obama                  04:  Romney                Mix: Obama
North Carolina:  15 EV, polls show Romney ahead but close
08:  Obama                  04:  Romney                Mix:  Romney
Virginia:  13 EV, polls show Romney ahead but close
08:  Obama                  04:  Romney                Mix:  Romney
Minnesota:  10 EV, polls show Obama ahead but close
08:  Obama                  04:  Romney                Mix: Obama
Wisconsin:  10 EV, polls show Obama ahead but close
08:  Obama                  04:  Romney                Mix:  Romney
Colorado:  9 EV, polls show Romney ahead but close
08:  Obama                  04:  Romney                Mix:  Romney
Oregon:  7 EV, polls show Obama ahead but close
08:  Obama                  04:  Romney                Mix: Obama
Iowa:  6 EV, polls show Obama ahead but close
08:  Obama                  04:  Romney                Mix: Obama
Nevada:  6 EV, polls show Obama ahead but close
08:  Obama                  04:  Romney                Mix: Obama
New Mexico:  5 EV, polls show Obama ahead but close
08:  Obama                  04:  Romney                Mix: Obama
New Hampshire:  4 EV, polls show tie or close either way
08:  Obama                  04:  Romney                Mix:  Romney
Maine: 1 EV contested, polls show tie
08:  Obama                  04:  Romney                Mix: Obama

On the weights, assuming each of the three turnouts is equally likely, then on average Obama would win 70.3 of the EV and Romney would win 68.5.  But since Obama needs 92 to win, he has a net 38.2% chance of winning, while Romney (who only needs 50 more EV) has a net 61.8% chance of winning.

That’s the math.   The votes themselves will decide the fact.

Be sure and vote.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

One Scenario Which Will Definitely Not Happen

As the election race closes to less than forty hours before Election Day, all kinds of stories have come out.  ‘Inside’ stories about Romney preparing for a loss, Obama planning to move to Hawaii next year because he knows he’s done, so-called experts and gurus who promise perfect knowledge of what will happen … there’s no shortage of noise and media flatulence.  While I have my own ideas about what will happen, I don’t pretend to know it for a fact, and frankly I don’t respect anyone who pretend that they have such knowledge.  However the voters think, however early voting went, the race itself will be decided Tuesday by the actual votes. That’s because opinion polls are not actual votes, and however important early voting is, no one has ever had so commanding a lead in early voting that the Election Day was not necessary.   Nate Silver is lying to you, and so is Karl Rove.  It’s what they are paid to do, actually, but you should keep in mind that spin is pervasive in the media, including a lot of people pretending they are objective reporters.  The race could be razor-close, it could be decisive, and it’s even possible that President Obama could win the Popular Vote but lose the Electoral Vote, as Gore did in 2000.  But I have not been able to work out a way for Mitt Romney to win the Popular Vote without also winning the Electoral Vote.

Here’s how that works out:

Obama has a commanding lead by all accounts in polls in five states (54%+ in New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Washington).  Obama also won handily in D.C.,  Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware, and Maine, but there are no polls in the last two weeks for those states.  If you take the poll support where known (use those RCP average that get such press), and apply 2008 numbers for states without polls, when you plug it all in, Barack Obama ends up leading Romney 48.9% to 46.6%. 

First, notice that no national poll , well no serious poll by professionals, give Romney support numbers that low nationally.  And Obama is below those numbers in serious national polls.  I don’t think those state polls are kosher, but for here they create a problem for anyone saying Romney would win the PV but lose the EV, because the only way to create that condition would be to add votes for Romney in battleground states … or create ridiculous scenarios, like saying he takes 90% in Texas and 48% in California.

When you add in the necessary votes to give Romney the PV lead, it always creates a condition where he wins the EV as well.  The closest scenario I could find, allowed the 3rd party percentages for each state to be copied from 2008, Obama was allowed the poll support and Romney the rest, and I end up with Romney 49.5%, Obama 49.0%, and Romney wins the EV 318-220.  I’m not saying that’s how it ends up, but if Romney wins the Popular Vote this year, he wins the Electoral College as well.

Thursday, November 01, 2012


Heard about the polls?  Sure you have.  Even if you have no interest in the polls, even if you hate them, the news has been full of reports from all sorts of agencies and groups, some of whom you may never had heard of, and some you frankly should ignore.  This is because the news depends on viewers and readers for their revenue, and a tight election – in theory – keeps their attention.  Polls serve the narrative, because you can’t tell if the poll is right or wrong until after the election.  That’s not to say the polling agencies are dishonest, for the most part at least, because polling groups are businesses and need to be reasonably accurate to be able to attract clients.  But polls are not all the same, and even where they share common ground, sometimes you would be wise to be skeptical.

Let’s start with the obvious.  If I put out a poll on the election and asked, say 600 men but only 400 women their opinions, you’d reject my findings as out of balance, because we all know even without checking the history that men and women vote in roughly equal numbers.  So a poll that did not balance men and women would not be reasonable.  Similarly, I could hardly call my poll reasonable for a national election if 80% of the people contacted were in, say, California and New York.  Or if my respondents were all white, or had some mix that was not in-line with census numbers for race. 

You get the idea.  Any poll which is not a reasonable sample of the actual public is not a valid poll.

With that in mind, the fact that a majority of state polls and a fair number of national polls have weighted political affiliation rather heavily in Obama’s favor is odd, to say the least.  Now yes, it is true that in 2008 Democrats represented 37 percent of the voters, seven full points more than the dispirited Republicans of that year.  So, some people will say the polls are simply reflecting the last Presidential election.  However, the polls in 2008 did not weight party affiliation according to the 2004 turnout, nor did the polls in 2004 use 2000 as a baseline for their weighting.  What’s more, the 2010 mid-term elections demonstrated a rather drastic shift in party participation, as Republicans showed up in large numbers and with great energy.  Ignoring that election seems to be, well, short-sighted.  Let’s also not forget the novelty of 2008.  Obama ran as the first black candidate from a major political party, surely worth political capital in 2008 but hardly the same impact now.  The economy is also a problem for Obama, and while his supporters may stand by him in the main, it’s frankly inconceivable that he would gain support on that point.  But what’s even stranger, is that some of these polls are handing Obama an ever greater advantage in party participation than he enjoyed in 2008.  There is absolutely no empirical basis whatsoever for such a weighting.  It’s misleading, it’s deliberate, and frankly the polls doing so risk humiliation if they – as seems likely – are proven wrong.

The question here is just why they would do something so, well, dumb.  The effect of the weighting is obvious; it’s not hard to expect that Democrats will largely vote for Obama while Republicans will largely vote for Romney, so fudging the weights will obviously change the outcome.  The reason it’s dumb is two-fold – first, it’s not hard to observe that if Romney is leading among Independents in a battleground state (which by definition is not automatically Democrat or Republican in the main), then saying Obama is winning is just plain dishonest, an obvious lie, and second, when the election results are known, the lie will not only be obvious, it will be a matter of record. 

Some folks, like our friends over at Pew Research, like to claim that there’s no reason to use party affiliation weighting.  Their explanation is that however folks respond is a fair representation of voter enthusiasm.  Certainly that helps explain the strong pro-Democrat weighting in 2008.  But there’s no evidence that’s always the case, and anyway, we’d laugh at Pew if they ignored other demographic weights on the basis that interest in answering a poll reflected accurate representation in the voter pool.  It’s lazy and intellectually dishonest to pretend so.  Also, Walter Mitofsky, who pioneered political polling as we know it, candidly admitted that Democrats are “chronically” over-sampled in polls.  He suggested it might have to do with the personality of Democrats versus Republicans, but in any case the bias is documented, and every responsible polling group knows it.

Yet, yet, yet.  I still don’t buy into conspiracy theories, not least because it makes no sense for a polling group to pretend someone is winning when they know he is losing.  Especially if doing so produces no financial benefit for the company, and instead would damage their reputation for accuracy and integrity.  And make no mistake, if Romney wins by a big margin, as could very well happen, then those polls which went out of their way to make Obama look stronger than he is, are in for a hard time of it.  They won’t be able to make the excuse that no one saw it coming, or that their hands are clean.  So why be stupid like this?

They’re homers.  That’s why.

I don’t mean the polling groups want Barack Obama to win, exactly.  Rather, these groups are engaging in an unconscious groupthink, based in their own demographics.  Back in 2008, I pointed out a reason for liberal bias in polling.  It has to do with their home ground.  Below, is a list of major polling groups from the 2008 election and their headquarters addresses:

ABC News 77 W 66th St, #13, New York City, New York
CBS News 524 W 57th St, New York City, New York
FOX News 1211 Avenue of the Americas, New York City, New York
Gallup 901 F St NW, Washington DC
Hotline 88 Pine St, 32nd floor, New York City, New York
IBD 12655 Beatrice St. Los Angeles, California
The Los Angeles Times 202 W 1st St, Los Angeles California
Marist Institute 3399 North Rd, Poughkeepsie, New York
Mason-Dixon 1250 Connecticut Ave #200, Washington DC
Newsweek 251 W 57th St, New York City, New York
The New York Times 1 City Hall, New York City, New York
Pew Research Center 1615 L St NW, #700, Washington DC
Quinnipiac 275 Mount Carmel Ave., Hamden Connecticut
Rasmussen 625 Cookman, #2, Asbury Park, New Jersey
Reuters 3 Times Square, New York City, New York
Survey USA 15 Bloomfield Ave., Verona New Jersey
TIPP 690 Kinderkamack Rd, Oradell, New Jersey
Washington Post 1150 15th St NW, Washington DC
Zogby 901 Broad St, Utica, New York

See the trend?

Two Left Coast outfits, and the rest well into Blue-State territory.  They live, work, and operate in an environment where balance and critical thinking, at least in political terms, does not exist and is punished when discovered.  Not a single group based in, say, Kansas, Texas, or Wyoming, or in more balanced states like Iowa, Missouri, or Ohio.  The bias is unavoidable, yet these guys never see it, because for them ‘normal’ is what for us means leaning left.

This also explains why many of these polls have not done what they usually do, make a last-week adjustment to get closer to the actual condition: the heavy storm knocked operations for a loop, and they are stuck with their garbage releases.   It’s too late to nudge things back to actual numbers.

So this seems hinky, but it really can be unconscious behavior.  Back when I officiated sports, I noticed how homers think and act, and what struck me early on, was that even the most outrageous homer believed he was reasonable and balanced; he simply did not perceive the other perspective.  Sports fans may not seem like a good model for a media professional, but I ran into the same effect with coaches and school officials.  If you don’t get out and travel, you can end up with a very limited view of what’s really going on. 

The thing that strikes me about polls, and it reinforces this problem, is that the polling is often done by firms hired by these media outlets, but the press release comes from the media guys, and specifically from their head office.  So, it’s very likely to me that these polls are performed professionally at the field level, then massaged at the high level to produce the desired report.  It’s not at all that these people are trying to deceive you.  They just know what results they expect, and make sure the report is in line with those expectations.  Strange as it may sound, they may be just as surprised next Tuesday night as Mr. Axelrod and his crew.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What Past Election Results Tell Us to Expect This Time

There’s no shortage of opinions on how the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election will turnout, and a lot of the disagreement  comes from the different landscapes presented by the National and State polls.  Romney supporters are encouraged by clear and substantial leads in the Gallup, Rasmussen, ABC News/Washington Post, and NPR polls.  Obama supporters point to the CBS News/NY Times and Politico polls, but they also point to the state polls, observing published leads for Obama in Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania.  There’s too many states on Obama’s side, they say, for Obama to lose.  The problem is, the math just does not work.  Either most of the national polls are wrong, or most of the state polls are wrong.  And things just get messy from there.

There’s all kinds of anecdotal stories to read and hear, but there’s also a record we can check.  Generally, there is a relationship between how a candidate does nationally and how he does in a given state.  As his national support rises, his support in each state rises to some degree, not at the same rate of course but the better a candidate does nationally, the states have to reflect it.  So we can look at past state results in relation to national results, to give us an idea of what should happen.  To keep it simple, for here I will just address battleground states.

First, to identify the battleground states.  I disagree a bit with RCP, I don’t think anyone can seriously pretend that Arizona, Missouri, or Oregon are in play this year, but I will take the rest:   Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.  Here’s how each state performed, by party, relative to the national election results for the last four Presidential elections:

Colorado:  Democrat candidates average 2.81 points lower in Colorado than their national support, while Republican candidates average 2.01 points higher in Colorado than their national support. 

Florida:  Democrat candidates average 0.97 points lower in Florida than their national support, while Republican candidates average 1.61 points higher in Florida than their national support.   Also, Republicans ALWAYS produced slightly higher results in Florida than their national support.

Iowa:  Democrat candidates average 0.80 points higher in Iowa than their national support, while Republican candidates average 0.62 points lower in Iowa than their national support.   Also, Democrats ALWAYS produced slightly higher results in Iowa than their national support.

Michigan:  Democrat candidates average 3.20 points higher in Michigan than their national support, while Republican candidates average 2.90 points lower in Michigan than their national support.   Also, Democrats ALWAYS produced slightly higher results in Michigan than their national support. 

Minnesota:  Democrat candidates average 1.35 points higher in Minnesota than their national support, while Republican candidates average 3.26 points lower in Minnesota than their national support.  

Nevada:  Democrat candidates average 1.45 points lower in Nevada than their national support, while Republican candidates average 0.16 points higher in Nevada than their national support. 

New Hampshire:  Democrat candidates average 0.44 points higher in New Hampshire than their national support, while Republican candidates average 1.02 points lower in New Hampshire than their national support.  

North Carolina:  Democrat candidates average 4.56 points lower in North Carolina than their national support, while Republican candidates average 6.31 points higher in North Carolina than their national support.   Also, Republicans ALWAYS produced slightly higher results in North Carolina than their national support.

Ohio:  Democrat candidates average 1.21 points lower in Ohio than their national support, while Republican candidates average 0.92 points higher in Ohio than their national support.   Also, Republicans ALWAYS produced slightly higher results in Ohio than their national support.

Pennsylvania:  Democrat candidates average 1.60 points higher in Pennsylvania than their national support, while Republican candidates average 1.49 points lower in Pennsylvania than their national support.  

Virginia:  Democrat candidates average 2.76 points lower in Virginia than their national support, while Republican candidates average 3.67 points higher in Virginia than their national support.   Also, Republicans ALWAYS produced slightly higher results in Virginia than their national support.

Wisconsin:  Democrat candidates average 0.95 points higher in Wisconsin than their national support, while Republican candidates average 1.80 points lower in Wisconsin than their national support.  

What this tells us, is the likely result of three different conditions in the national popular vote:

If Barack Obama wins the Popular Vote, he will definitely win Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and would likely win Nevada and Ohio .  Romney could still claim Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia but that would not be enough.  Obama would win re-election by 281 EV to 257.

If Romney wins the Popular Vote with 51.5% or more, he could win all of the battleground states but Michigan; that state seems out of reach in any scenario.  That could mean a Romney win by an Electoral  margin of  331 EV to 207.

If the two candidates are essentially tied in the Popular Vote, Obama would claim Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, while Romney would claim Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia.  That would produce a 281-257 Electoral win for Romney.

The actual results will be sure to include some changes from the script, of course.  I think, for example, it’s more likely this year that New Hampshire would go to Romney and Nevada would go to Obama than vice versa, but we shall see.  The point is that the last several elections do give us an idea of how things turn out relative to different levels of polls and voting, and that’s something to keep in mind.    

Friday, October 26, 2012

Last Meme Standing: Why Obama and Romney have Different Strategies

We’re just eleven days away from the Presidential Election, or more accurately, eleven days away from the end of voting.  The news says the race is tight, but you can still find a wide range of outcomes predicted by savants and would-be wizards.  While I have the same expectation for the outcome that I have published since August, I also recognize that a great many things can still happen to change that outcome and decide the margin.  What I find most interesting at this point, is the basic theory behind each candidate’s strategy.

First, the Obama campaign.  After winning the 2008 election fairly easily, the Obama Camp entered this year with understandable confidence.  With no primary competition in the Spring, and generally high likability all year long, President Obama did not appear to expect serious difficulty in earning a second term.  But as the Spring turned into Summer, the race began to tighten, and by October it was clear Obama would have to fight to win a second term.  What started as a relaxed attitude became tense as Obama aides and campaign directors found themselves looking up at Romney in national polls.  The narrative from Obama’s campaign now is simple – stay on message and protect the firewall.  That word, ‘firewall’, shows up a lot.  It’s the idea, also voiced in general over the past couple months, that Obama controls too many states for Romney to win in the Electoral College.  They say that if Obama simply holds what he has now, he wins.  No worry about the national polls, it’s all about the states. 

Next, the Romney campaign.  Romney understood going in that he’d have an uphill fight, but voter displeasure about the economy and Obama’s failed promise of bipartisanship gave him hope that he could win the election.  Romney’s team considered the election as an asymmetric campaign, where Romney first had to establish himself as a viable candidate in voters’ eyes, then prove he was a better choice than the incumbent.  The early summer looked daunting, but Romney remained disciplined and made a number of important decisions which were designed for long-term effect, rather than short-term splash.  This was why Romney enjoyed no bounce from his convention, yet exploded in support after the first debate.  Romney’s strategy worked to first consolidate his electoral base, then build a national appeal to open opportunities. 

With polls in disagreement and less than two weeks to go, these two concepts of the election now run head-on into each other.  If Obama is right, Romney will enjoy some good poll numbers but will lose in just enough swing states to give the incumbent four more years.  If Romney is right, then President Obama will appear to be closer than he really is, right up to Election Night, when the actual results will herald the end of the Obama Administration after this year.  The salient point, in my opinion, to this election, is the fact that no political firewall exists.

There is no shortage of punditry to promise this outcome or that, but in the end the election is numbers-driven  And it’s in the numbers where Mister Obama’s firewall proves illusory.

Let’s start with the national polls.  Rather than go through all of them, let’s look at the most prominent polls with polls in September and October.  To keep it simple, let’s look at Obama’s support last month and now:

Rasmussen:  Sept 16 at 45%, Oct 24 47%, gain of 2
Gallup:  Sept 27 at 49%, Oct 25 at 47%, loss of 2
ABC News/WaPo:  Sept 29 at 49%, Oct 23 at 48%, loss of 1
NBC News/WSJ:  Sept 30 at 49%, Oct 20 at 47%, loss of 2
FOX News:  Sept 26 at 48%, Oct 9 at 45%, loss of 3

Now let’s look at Romney’s support last month and now:

Rasmussen:  Sept 16 at 47%, Oct 24 50%, gain of 3 
Gallup:  Sept 27 at 45%, Oct 25 at 50%, gain of 5
ABC News/WaPo:  Sept 29 at 47%, Oct 23 at 49%, gain of 2
NBC News/WSJ:  Sept 29 at 46%, Oct 20 at 47%, gain of 1
FOX News: Sept 26 at 43%, Oct 9 at 46%, gain of 3

In every major poll, Romney has gained since last month. Even before the debate, Romney was doing well, and since the first week of October, Romney has taken a clear lead in national polls.   That’s momentum, folks.

So, OK, let’s look at some state polls.  After all, the Obama people tell us that’s where the ‘firewall’ is.

Rasmussen:  Sept 13 at 49%, Oct 24 at 48%, loss of 1
FOX:  Sept 18 at 50%, Oct 24 at 45%, loss of 5
ARG:  Sept 27 at 49%, Oct 14 at 47%, loss of 2

Rasmussen:  Sept 13 at 48%, Oct 24 at 50%, gain of 2
FOX:  Sept 18 at 43%, Oct 24 at 47%, gain of 4
ARG:  Sept 27 at 47%, Oct 14 at 48%, gain of 1

Looks like the ‘firewall’ failed, hmm?

Rasmussen:  Sept 12 at 48%, Oct 18 at 46%, loss of 2
Survey USA:  Sept 9 at 48%,  Oct 18 at 47%, loss of 1
AR:  Sept 22 at 50%, Oct 11 at 46%, loss of 4

Rasmussen:  Sept 12 at 46%, Oct 18 at 51%, gain of 5
Survey USA:  Sept 9 at 44%. Oct 18 at 46%, gain of 2
ARG:  Sept 22 at 45%, Oct 11 at 49%, gain of 4

And again.

Rasmussen:  Sept 12 at 47%, Oct 23 at 48%, gain of 1
CBS/Quinn.:  Sept 24 at 53%, Oct 20 at 50%, loss of 3
PPP:  Sept 30 at 49%, Oct 20 at 49%, no change

Rasmussen:  Sept 12 at 46%, Oct 23 at 48%, gain of 2
CBS/Quinn:  Sept 24 at 43%, Oct 20 at 45%, gain of 2
PPP:  Sept 30 at 45%, Oct 20 at 48%, gain of 3

Again, Romney has momentum

(Real Clear Politics source for the poll numbers)

The fact is, Romney has been trending up in battleground states, even ones that Obama’s campaign figured they had locked up just a few weeks ago.

Well, there’s a problem with the ‘firewall’ theory.  A physical firewall is there to prevent fire from reaching you, while voters can change their mind … or just stay home and not vote.  For Obama’s firewall theory to work, he has to not only convince voters to stay with him, those voters cannot be impressed by the challenger.  Now, both Republicans and Democrats have a base of loyal voters that their candidates can depend on, but that’s the point – that’s the base, the bottom level that you get whether you work much or not.  If you look at past elections, you can see how much of that base incumbents can lose.  Carter, for example, was in dismal shape in 1980, and so was GHW Bush in 1992.  They stayed competitive in their races, but when it came crunch time, their base level was too low to protect them.  A successful incumbent has to build on their base and gain support, as we saw happen with Bush in 2004, Clinton in 1996, Reagan in 1984, Nixon in 1972, and Eisenhower in 1956.  Actually, that list is much longer, but you get the idea.  The only way to actually have a firewall to use is to build one on top of your base, not hope you can pump up support in a few targeted states. 

There just is no ‘firewall’ for Obama this year. 

But there’s more.  In 2004, John Kerry won twenty states plus DC.  In 2008, Barack Obama claimed 28 states plus DC, meaning he took 8 states that Bush won the previous election.  The thing about that is that there’s no real reason to say those same eight states could not flip back to the Republican.  Some states are certainly loyal to one party or the other, but there’s a reason some states are known as ‘battleground’ or ‘swing’ states – it’s frankly na├»ve to imagine that an incumbent has those states locked up, and only a little less silly to expect that personal appearances or spending on commercials will automatically win a contested state.   And the Obama camp is finding out that fact just a bit late in the campaign.

One fact that gets lost in all the talk, is that Obama has never run as an incumbent before.  In all of his previous campaigns, Obama was stepping up to the next level, from running for state senator to U.S. Senator to  President of the United States.  So Obama is only now learning that incumbents face a different landscape and conditions than do challengers.

It’s not hard to figure out that the national mood is different this year, from 2008.  That year, the disgust with conditions blamed Republicans as the incumbent (even though Democrats controlled Congress), and Mister Obama promised not only a fresh approach but cooperation with his political opponents.  Since then, the economy has become weaker and the job market absolutely dismal, and the tone of the Obama White House is at turns strident or arrogant.  Even as President Obama explains to voters what he wants to do with the next term, he has never properly explained why he did not accomplish the promised results in his first term. 
Obama could win, of course.  Romney’s recent surge has, at best, given him a narrow lead and the state polls remain very much in doubt.  But the trend is certainly on Romney’s side, as evidenced by the Obama camp’s attempt to denounce poll results and internals.

The Democrats are correct to some degree, in that the states will determine the electors, who in their turn will decide the Presidential election.  At this point, we can consider the states safely locked up for Obama or Romney, where the candidate has 54% or more support in the polls (state polls have about a 4% MOE):

Obama:  9 states (including DC), 122 Electoral Votes
Romney:  11 states, 93 Electoral Votes

That means that 31 states and 323 Electoral Votes are statistically in play.  Let’s next look at additional states where the candidate has a lead greater than the 4-point margin of error plus the undecideds:

Obama: 4 states, 43 Electoral Votes (total now up to 13 states, 165 Electoral Votes)
Romney: 7 states, 59 Electoral Votes (total now up to 17 states, 152 Electoral Votes)

165 to 152 is a lot closer than you hear about in the news, isn’t it?  It means that 21 states remain in play, even this close to the election.  So what about those states?  Without getting into arguments about party weighting on the polls, one fairly undeniable point is how these states come down to how the undecideds break.  That is, Obama’s camp believes they will break to the incumbent while Romney’s team expects them to break for the challenger. 

So, both campaign teams are chasing the undecideds.  Romney has been gradually winning them over, and will continue until he reaches either his ceiling or the election finishes.  But Mister Obama has a different condition.  Here’s why:

Incumbents deal with three kinds of voters.  There are the people who voted for him, whom he keeps as long as he does the job as he promised, voters who dislike him and won’t vote for him no matter what, and voters who did not vote for him but will consider voting for him if they believe he did a good job.  That’s basically why Presidents who win re-election do so with a better percent of the vote than the first time.  Obviously, you can’t add people to your side who are already on your side, so incumbents win the re-election by keeping their base energized, by making their opponents feel they are not able to win, and by convincing the open-minded that they have done a good job.  So, it comes down to the record, not the marketing.

Challengers, on the other hand, start empty and have to win over folks.  It’s true that the challenger in the Presidential general election gets to claim the support of his party once he wins the nomination, but as anyone who ever ran in a primary can tell you, winning that nomination is grueling.  That’s why even a poor candidate is able to stay somewhat close; you don’t get to the general election unless you know how to campaign.  Once he has the nomination of his party, the challenger starts a new race, where he has to win over the nation.  He gets the voters who rejected the incumbent, provided they are mad enough to be sure to vote, but remember, if the incumbent has done a good job, the incumbent already has some of the voters who did not vote for him the first time, so the challenger is at a disadvantage.  This, basically, is why the Obama camp believed that it was too late for Romney to win. 

But the problem is where the new voters come from.  That is, when polls show the incumbent President is enjoying good Job Approval polls, he’s got voters behind him and all he has to do, is not blow it.  But if he falls below 50% in Job Approval polls, history shows he is in trouble, because once voters walk away from an incumbent, they either vote for the challenger or they stay home.  When the challenger knows this, he can target those voters.  This, in short, explains Romney’s debate strategy, and why the polls rewarded him so well in October.

The short version is that the remaining undecided voters will either vote for Romney, or they will stay home. 
There just is no ‘firewall’ for Obama this year.  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Polling Fudge

I don’t work for any polling group.  On the one hand, this means I don’t have first-hand knowledge of how a poll determines its methodology, weighting, or resolves conflicts, but on the other it also means I am free from any pressure to excuse or cover-up mistakes or false claims.  One of the boldest of those claims is not stated explicitly, but is allowed to fly unchallenged – that the polls are accurate measures of voter opinion and are reflected by results close to their prediction.  That’s just not so, when you check it out.

Here are some interesting final poll results from Presidential elections:

Gallup 1992:  Clinton 49, Bush 37 (off by 6.4 points)
Gallup 1980:  Reagan 47, Carter 44 (off by 6.8 points)
Harris 1992:  Clinton 49, Bush 37 (off by 6.4 points)  
Harris 1984:  Reagan 56, Mondale 44 (off by 6.4 points)
CBS/NYT 2008:  Obama 51, McCain 42 (off by 6.0 points)
CBS/NYT 2000:  Bush 44, Gore 45 (off by 7.3 points)
CBS/NYT 1996:  Clinton 53, Dole 35 (off by 9.5 points)
CBS 1980: Reagan 44, Carter 43 (off by 8.8 points)
CBS 1976:  Carter 45, Ford 41 (off by 12.2 points)
USA Today 2008:  Obama 50, McCain 42 (off by 7.0 points)
USA Today 1992:  Clinton 49, Bush 37 (off by 6.4 points)
USA Today 1988:  Bush 52, Dukakis 42 (off by 5.1 points)
USA Today 1984:  Reagan 61, Mondale 34 (off by 8.6 points)
NBC/WSJ 2008:  Obama 51, McCain 43 (off by 5.0 points)
NBC 2000:  Bush 47, Gore 44 (off by 5.3 points)
NBC 1980:  Reagan 42, Carter 36 (off by 13.8 points)
Fox 2000:  Bush 43, Gore 43 (off by 10.3 points)
Ipsos 2004:  Bush 46, Kerry 49 (off by 5.4 points)
IBD 2004:  Bush 46.9, Kerry 44.3 (off by 7.8 points)
Rasmussen 2000:  Bush 40, Gore 49 (off by 8.5 points)
Pew 1996:  Clinton 52, Dole 38 (off by 5.5 points)
Marist 2000:  Bush 49, Gore 44 (off by 5.5 points)
Newsweek 2000:  Bush 45, Gore 43 (off by 8.3 points)
LA Times 2008:  Obama 50, McCain 41 (off by 8.0 points)

 What should be noticed in these polls, is not only how far off they ended up, but the fact that polls often over- or under-estimated one candidate’s support .  That, by the way, is also why my review of their errors is different than you will hear from some polls.  Some will simply compare the margin in their final poll to the election margin, while others will take the total variance between their poll and the election result and cut it in half to call it an “average”, but neither is statistically correct.  Polls measure specific levels of support for each candidate, and so their margin of error is actually the total distance between their call and the result for each candidate.  As an example, let’s say PollCo releases a poll saying candidate A will beat candidate B 53% to 45%, but in fact candidate A wins 51% to 48%.  The poll might claim that their margin was +2 for A and -3 for B, so the average margin is 0.5 points off, but in fact the actual margin of error would be 5 points off.  This is often trivial in itself, but let’s say PollCo is usually off between 4 and 5 points, understating one candidate while overstating another.  Shouldn’t you know that history when, say, in another year PollCo says candidate G is leading candidate H 49% to 48%?  In a close race, a poll with a history of missing the mark by a sizable chunk is not really reliable, is it?

Ah, but there’s more.  Only polling nerds like myself would recognize the name Walter Mitofsky, but this gentlemen was a legend in opinion polling.  Having worked for the Census Bureau then CBS News, Mitofsky for all practical purposes created the Exit Poll as we know it.  Mitofsky knew how polls worked, and significantly observed that there is a chronic bias in favor of Democrat candidates in opinion polling, not just once in a while, but all the time. 

There are exceptions, but in general polls tend to undervalue support for both Republican candidates and challengers.  The implications for this election are rather obvious.

I have said before that polls try to get the results right, but we should be very careful to test their headline claims, which are often driven by the narrative of the moment.  This week it’s amusing to hear the excuses being thrown out by Democrats, that the state polls are correct while the national polls, somehow, are not.  Republicans, in some cases, say the opposite, that the state polls are wrong while the national polls are right.  What I think is something else entirely – a lot of people do not realize what the polls are really telling us, and so assumptions drive emotion to error.

Let’s start with three obvious facts:

1.  In general, poll groups try very hard to publish accurate representations of voter intent.  This point often gets lost in all the emotion, but looking for conspiracies or attempts to mislead voters.  Errors happen but are honest mistakes due to faulty (sometimes common) false assumptions.

2.   All polls have errors and unknowns.  Expecting a poll to be perfect means you expect voters to have no doubts, to never change their mind, and to respond to poll queries in the exact proportions that they will vote, demographically.  To understand a poll, you do not count it as part of an average of polls, you do not assume that the margin held at any date a week or more out will hold through the end, and you do not ignore the internal data.  To understand a poll, you note shifts in trends, momentum, you observe weak and strong demographic groups for each candidate, and you make sure the poll has not changed its methodology or demographic weights since the last poll release.

3.  The state and national polls are inextricably linked.  If there is disagreement in the topline conclusion between state and national polls, either the national polls will correct to be in line with the correct state polls, or state polls will correct to be in line with the national polls.  This does not happen because someone wants to avoid embarrassment, but because math requires it.  Four quarts always make a gallon, sixteen ounces always make up a pound, and the fifty states plus D.C. have to make up the national total.  Resolution is inevitable.

So why is there argument?  For one thing, a lot of otherwise intelligent people do not seem to understand that 2012 is not 2008.  The economy, world condition, social and legal issues, are all different from four years ago.  The candidates are different from four years ago, including Barack Obama.  Mister Obama cannot run as the fresh young challenger this year, he has to run on his record and accept Mister Romney will be on offense this time.  What that means in the polls is that many assumptions have to change to match the new paradigm, especially in demographic terms.  A rather large number of polls were set up on assumptions which are clearly in dispute now.  As a result, state and national polls are sometimes in sharp disagreement about the party participation by Democrats, Republicans, and Independents in this election.  Also, Pew reported earlier this year that the response rate by voters to polling groups has plummeted below ten percent, indicating  large portion of voters do not respond to poll queries, which calls poll results into question, especially when sample sizes are low, as is generally the case with state polling.  Also, state polls are performed far less frequently than national polls, and even then by a variety of agencies rather than by the same groups on a regular schedule.  Consequently, if something shifts within the dynamics of a state, the state polls tend to lag behind national polls in observing and reporting the new trend.