Eisinger: Reading the Polls Myopically

05/23/2008 03:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today's Guest Pollster contribution comes from Robert M. Eisinger, a political science professor at Lewis & Clark College and the author of The Evolution of Presidential Polling (Cambridge University Press).

There are few things more dangerous to sensationalized journalism than when anyone over-analyzes poll data. A recent Quinnipiac Poll shows Senator Clinton defeating Senator McCain in Ohio and Florida, but Senator Obama losing such head-to-head match-ups against Senator McCain. A SurveyUSA poll shows similar results in Missouri and North Carolina. Clinton defeats McCain, but Obama does not. These polls, it is argued, are worrisome for the Obama campaign, and serve as evidence among some Clinton supporters that she is a stronger candidate in swing states.

Beware. Poll answers, regardless of the question, must be placed in some context. The absence of at least one follow-up question may have yielded an interesting context from which to interpret the head-to-head answers provided. Imagine, for example, that the pollsters asked the following question:

"Imagine that Senator Obama eventually becomes the Democratic presidential nominee, and Senator Clinton enthusiastically campaigns for him. If the 2008 election for President were being held today, and the candidates were Barack Obama the Democrat and John McCain the Republican, for whom would you vote?"

One could even imagine tweaking the question by revising "Senator Clinton," "the Clinton campaign," "Senator Obama," and "the Obama campaign." Such questions are reasonable one to ask, especially when one is reminded that both Senators Obama and Clinton have stated that they would endorse the Democratic nominee. There is good reason to believe that Senator Clinton would be magnanimous and enthusiastically support the Democratic ticket. Similarly, there is no reason to conclude that the inclusion of this question would necessarily result in poll numbers that would greatly assist Senator Obama; it is quite conceivable that some of Senator Clinton's supporters do not want to a President Obama under any circumstance, and that Independent voters may be turned off by Senator Clinton's endorsement of anyone.

No doubt the Obama campaign is not rejoicing after reading the poll data. They would prefer numbers that show Senator Obama defeating Senator McCain in all states at all times. Senator Obama wants to win the swing states, and right now, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Missouri are not securely in the Democratic camp.

But there is something noticeably absent about asking about a viable scenario in which the Democratic presidential candidates, especially Senator Clinton, unite behind the winner, even if the nominee is Senator Obama.

[Typos corrected]