Last week I received a great question from astute reader JG:
I'm an avid but amateur follower of
presidential polling, and I've been wondering why all the polls to date, at
least the ones reported here and at pollingreport.com, are horse-race types, matching each of
the presidential candidates against each other. Why haven't any firms asked a
question about a generic Democrat-Republican matchup, that is, whether voters
are likely to vote for the Democratic or a Republican presidential candidate,
whoever that is? Wouldn't that be more informative about the state of voters
than all the horse-race questions?
While I thought this was a good question to put to the media
pollsters that conduct most of the national surveys, I emailed JG back that my
guess was that most prefer to use candidate names whenever feasible. The main
reason they ask a "generic" vote at all is that trying to identify
and administer 435 different Congressional match-ups is simply to complex a
task for an RDD telephone survey.
Well, the Diageo/Hotline poll is about to provide JG with a
better answer. The Hotline is telling its paid subscribers that it will release
a survey later today that will show "a generic Dem candidate leading a generic
GOP candidate 47%-29% in a WH '08 matchup." Results should be posted at diageohotlinepoll.com sometime
Regular readers will recall that I have never been a big fan
of the generic vote (see commentary here,
This far out, I believe that a generic vote question tells us mostly about the
way voters perceive the national political parties. While those images apparently
give the Democrats a huge early advantage - a finding that is certainly
informative about the voters' current attitudes - the ultimate nominees of each
party and their campaign messages will likely reshape those images. So, for my
money, the generic vote remains something of questionable value in tracking
where the race will be in 18 months. But for now (or whenever the Hotline posts
the numbers)...have at it.
PS: The comment by reader Tlaloc below reminds me that one
pollster - the Democracy Corps project led by Democrat Stan Greenberg - did create
a "generic" vote question that inserted candidate names into a sample of 50 competitive
congressional districts (see Q27).
Greenberg's question actually debuted on an NPR survey
he conducted along with Republican Glenn Bolger (that I wrote about here).
Most pollsters now conduct surveys using "computer assisted telephone
interviewing "(CATi) software that makes it feasible, with a bit of
programming, to insert of candidate names for different districts.
The bigger limitation has to do with the sample. Greenberg's
50 district sample used 50 small samples drawn from registered voter lists, so
it was a relatively simple matter to match telephone numbers to districts. However,
most national surveys use a random digit dial (RDD) method that picks telephone
numbers at random from working telephone exchanges (the first three digits of
the seven digit phone number). Since phone exchanges do not correspond neatly
with congressional district boundaries, it is impossible to precisely match telephone
numbers with districts in an RDD sample.
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