Three Links, One Point

08/05/2008 04:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bear with me. The post that follows links to three seemingly unrelated items that will hopefully add up to a coherent point about our tendency to over-analyze day to day "change" in polls on the presidential race.

The first is Ellen Gamerman's recent Wall Street Journal feature on "whether people are telling the truth" to pollsters. She reviews the steps well known political pollsters are taking to check for the "Bradley Effect" (sometimes also called the Bradley-Wilder effect), "the idea that some white voters are reluctant to say they support a white candidate over a black candidate." The piece notes that both CBS and ABC News will be checking whether results vary with the race of the interviewer have an impact on vote preferences.

The article also includes a useful review of the work being done by academic survey researchers on whether respondents will be more honest on "self administered" surveys (those without a live interviewer). Don't miss the interactive graphic featuring audio commentary from the researchers on examples of other ways that respondents are sometimes less than honest on surveys. While there are some intriguing new findings (see especially those on "good TV" and "M&M's"), the bulk of the research on this subject warns us to watch out for circumstances where respondents tell us "what they expect [the interviewers] want to hear" (as Tim Byers, a researcher at the Colorado School of Public Health, puts it).

That possibility leads me to a second finding from last week's "News Interest Index" survey from the Pew Research Center. The result that caught my eye received no mention in their analysis, largely because it involved a question they have been tracking on a weekly basis since January that showed no meaningful change last week:

[In the past week] Did you follow news about candidates for the 2008 presidential election very closely, fairly closely, not too closely or not at all closely?

30% very closely

34% fairly closely

21% not too closely

15% not closely at all

<1% don't know/refused

So, taking these results at face value, we know that less than a third of Americans are paying "very close" attention to the presidential race. More than a third (36%) say they are following the campaign "not too closely" or "not closely at all." Now consider the 34% who say "fairly closely" in light of what survey researchers tend to take for granted: Respondents sometimes tell us things they think we want to hear. In the context of a survey about about how much attention people are paying to the news, some respondents may be exaggerating their attentiveness to news. I would take the "fairly closely" result with a grain of salt.

Next consider the results from the second and third questions asked on the same survey. Fifty-nine percent (59%) said they heard nothing about Barack Obama in the previous week that made them either more or less favorable to Obama, and 62% said they heard nothing about John McCain that changed their view of him.

These data paint a clear picture for me: Most Americans are paying far less attention to news about the campaign than most journalists, pundits and readers of this site. If we assume that all Americans are following the campaign as a jury follows a trial, we are in error.

Finally, consider something ABC's polling director Gary Langer wrote earlier today:

We too often expect knee-jerk reactions to events of the day; rarely, in fact, do we see them. With few exceptions public opinion proceeds, instead, by a process known as considered judgment: People obtain information as it develops, evaluate it, let it accumulate to the point that it warrants reconsideration of existing attitudes, and at that point re-evaluate and either maintain or change their views.

Attitudes, this means, are far less flighty or reactive to individual events than is commonly assumed; for the most part they are, actually, rational. Obama's trip, like everything else he's doing - and ditto for John McCain - are therefore about building a case, not about changing daily numbers (which, at this stage, are fundamentally silly).

Combine Langer's description with the fact that many Americans are "obtaining" information about the candidates at glacial pace, and we should be surprised to see much meaningful change in the polling numbers right now, especially those measuring vote preference.

Update: In the comments, Along makes a good point:

As Mr. Franklin posted on Monday, the polls in 2004 and 2000 began to shift quite a bit right around now--the 100 days out mark. In 1992 Bill Clinton also started rising significantly in mid-July, after the convention. Kerry's summer swoon started just after his convention, Gore's summer rise started just before his. So are you saying the summer movement in those races was not "meaningful change," or that it was, and we should simply be waiting till the conventions grab our attention to see meaningful movement this year?

I meant mostly the latter. The conventions were earlier in previous years. While convention "bumps" may not endure, voters do pay more attention and the information they receive during conventions is important. Nate Silver made a similar observation last night:

Pundits -- including yours truly -- generally exaggerate the speed with which political news reaches a saturation depth in the American electorate. There are a few exceptions -- debates, conventions, and major victories in the primaries can have measurable effects almost immediately, and certainly within the first 48-72 hours. So can DEFCON-2 level controversies like Jeremiah Wright. But most of the things we write about here, or the National Review talks about, or Keith Olbermann talks about, take a long time to penetrate the electorate if they do so at all.