When Pollsters Attack: Epilogue

10/02/2007 08:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nearly two weeks ago, just before we kicked off our Disclosure

, InsiderAdvantage pollster Matt Towery used a syndicated column headlined


a Quinnipiac?"
to attack the Florida

polls conducted by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. Towery not only

highlighted how his polls differed from a recent Quinnipiac survey but also commissioned

Mason-Dixon Polling and Research to conduct a parallel poll to prove his point.

Towery's unusually jocular broadside amounted to "one pollster whack[ing] the

other upside the head," as Politico's Jonathan Martin put


"At the very least,"

Towery argued,

Quinnipiac numbers should stop

being taken at face value as the paragon of accuracy in Florida. Somewhere in their methodology they

continue to misread the state they claim to know so intimately.

When I looked at

the four polls of Florida Republicans conducted recently by InsiderAdvanage,

Quinnipiac and Mason-Dixon, the differences between them seem explained mostly

by the inclusion of Newt Gingrich as a candidate in the Quinnipiac poll and the

fact that Fred Thompson's announcement occurred during the fielding of the

Quinnipiac poll but before the others. Still, Towery's suggestion that the

Quinnipiac differences might be found "somewhere in their methodology" led me

to ask the same kinds of methodological questions as we have been asking as

part of our Disclosure Project. Their responses follow, and the difference in

sampling methodology adds another possible explanation. Quinnipiac's sample of

"registered Republicans" samples a population roughly four times the size of

the "likely voters" surveyed by InsiderAdvantage and Mason-Dixon.

Interview Dates -

One question I asked only of Quinnipiac was to provide the number of interviews

conducted before and after Fred Thompson's announcement of candidacy. Doug

Schwartz at Quinnipiac reports that 199 (or 45%) of their 438 interviews were

conducted on or before the evening of September 5. Thompson declared his

intentions later that night and received a burst of positive coverage in the

week that followed. While the methodologies of these surveys differ, it is

worth remembering that the other polls by InsiderAdvantage and Mason-Dixon were

fielded in their entirety after September 5.

Sample Frame -

Although the term is a bit wonky, one of the most important ways these polls

differ is in what pollsters call the "sampling frame." Put more simply, the

issue is the source for the random sample of voters called by each pollster.

Quinnipiac uses a random digit dialing (RDD) methodology

that contacts a random sample of all the working landline telephone numbers in Florida and then uses

screen questions to select a random sample of registered Republicans. In this

case, both InsiderAdvantage and Mason-Dixon selects voters at random from the

list of registered Republicans provided by the Secretary of State, using both

actual vote history and screen questions to identify and interview "likely"

Republican primary voters.

For more information on the debate about RDD versus list

sampling, see our prior posts here

and here.

How Did They Select Republican

Registered or Likely Voters?
- The pollsters at Quinnipiac provided a

complete and relatively straightforward answer. They asked two questions about

vote registration and party affiliation:

Some people are registered to vote and others

are not. Are you registered to vote in the election district where you now

live, or aren't you?

[IF REGISTERED] Are you registered

as a Republican, Democrat, some other party or are you not affiliated with any


Both Towery and Brad Coker at Mason-Dixon were both

initially reluctant to describe the specifics of their likely voter selection

procedures, citing the need to protect "proprietary" methods. After a bit of email

back-and-forth, however, both were willing to describe their methods in general

terms. Let's start with Coker, answering on behalf of Mason-Dixon:

Our sample design and screening method takes

into account voter registration, party registration, past primary voting

history and likeliness to vote in the primary. Other factors that were taken

into account were the age, county, gender and race of the voting population

based on previous Republican primary elections.

What that means -- as I read it -- is that Mason-Dixon uses

information on past vote history on the voter list to draw a random sample of a

subset of Republicans that they consider most likely to vote. They ask those

sampled individuals questions on "likeliness to vote in the primary" and screen

out unlikely voters. Finally, they weight the demographics of the final sample

based on the demographics of voters in previous Republican primaries.

Towery reports using a similar procedure at InsiderAdvantage:

"We do poll off of [a list of] registered voters, but we do then cull that

number down based on a voting history that gives us a more likely voter

sample." They then ask a screen question to identify likely primary voters:

"are you likely to vote in the_____presidential primary to be held ____."

What Percentage of

the Voting Age Population Did Each Poll Represent? -
The calculation for

the Quinnipiac poll is relatively straightforward: They report starting with a

random sample of 1,325 adults and using the questions above to identify and

interview 438 registered Republicans. So the Quinnipiac Republican sample

amounted to 33% of Florida adults (438 divided by 1,325).

Again, Coker and Towery were initially reluctant about

sharing specific numbers, but ultimately provided the information necessary to

answer my question. Let's start again with Coker and Mason-Dixon:

The population we were trying to capture was

the roughly 1 million Republican voters who will be most likely to vote in

January. In a universe of approximately 3.8 million registered Republicans, we

targeted a population of about 1.2 million Republican voters and had an

incidence of 83%.

So Mason-Dixon

interviewed a sample designed to represent approximately 1 million voters (1.2

million * .83) out of 14.2 million Florida

adults, or 7.0% of Florida adults.

Next, Towery and InsiderAdvantage:

The [target] universe based on our sample

system was around 1.6 million. This reflects the slightly higher than normal

turnout you see in a Presidential primary. Incidence rate, based on data I just

received was around 75%. Based on your description this would mean a final

"universe" of around 1.2 million voters (all registered) which I believe

reflects the likely turnout for a GOP Pres. primary turnout.

So the

Insider-Advantage interviewed as ample designed to reflect approximately 1.2

million adults, or 8.5% of Florida adults.

As should be

obvious, Mason-Dixon and InsiderAdvantage sampled significantly narrower

populations of Republican voters than Quinnipiac. Via email Brad Coker argues that a narrower "screen" is more appropriate to a

pre-election poll aimed at projecting the preferences of likely voters: "I

would question the validity of a poll of ‘registered Republican voters' simply

on the grounds that 75% of those sampled probably won't be voting in January."

According to the Florida

Secretary of State
, the vote for Republican primary candidates totaled

roughly 1 million in 2006 (Governor), 1.2 million in 2004 (Senate) and 700,000

in the 2000 presidential primary.

In response to my

initial questions, Quinnipiac's Doug Schwartz sent this statement:

The methodology used by the Quinnipiac poll is similar to

that of all the other major polling operations in the country. It has correctly

predicted the outcome of every major race it has polled on in Florida during the past three years. For

details on the methodology used, contact Doug Schwartz or visit

That is true, but we should note that the final pre-election survey conducted by Quinnipiac in 2006 reported the

results among "likely voters" rather than all registrants. So their

primary voter "methodology" may shift as we get closer to

Election Day. Pollsters continue to debate the merits of various likely voter

models months prior to the election, something I covered in great

in 2004 in the context of general elections. Putting that debate aside,

however, the point is that the universes sampled in this instance are very different.

What Are the Demographics? - I asked

each pollster to provide the results to demographic questions asked of their

Republican samples. Both Quinnipiac and Mason-Dixon were quick to respond. The

table below shows that the Quinnipiac sample is a bit younger. This is not

surprising given that voters are typically older than non-voters.


Both Quinnipiac

and Mason-Dixon also included the regional composition of their samples. While

their regions were not identical, their definition of South

Florida came close. Mason-Dixon had fewer Republicans in their

Southeast Florida region (18% in Palm Beach, Broward, Dade and Monroe Counties)

than Quinnipiac (23%; although the Quinnipac South Florida region also includes

Hendry County, which accounts for just 0.1% of registered Republicans


This last

difference is important because, according to the Mason-Dixon cross-tabulations

that Coker also provided, Rudy Giuliani ran far ahead of Fred Thompson (33% to

11%; n=70) in Southeast Florida, but trailed Thompson narrowly elsewhere (22%

to 26%; n=330). So the fact that Quinnipiac had a greater percentage of respondents

in South Florida provides yet another explanation

for Giuliani doing better statewide in their poll.

Coker also

provided this information:

Since we have the Florida voter file, we know the precise

demographic profile of those who have voted in previous elections (at least in

terms of county, age, gender and stated race/ethnicity). Our sample matches it

within 1-2% of the actual figures from the average of 2004 & 2006 GOP

primary turn-outs. Deaths and out-migration could easily account for any


Towery, on the

other hand, was more reticent:

We don't give out our weighting percentages or

our demographic regional breakdowns because those are proprietary and if we did

so, it would be like Coke giving away the secret formula, well not that big,

but important to us!

Which brings us

back to the whole point of our Disclosure Project. We should congratulate all

three pollsters for providing the "incidence" data necessary to help us answer,

in essence, not just "What is a Quinnipiac?" (to borrow Towery's headline) but

also, "what is a Mason-Dixon?" and "what is an InsiderAdvantage? As a result of

their disclosure, we can see how different the "target populations" were and

take those differences into account in assessing the results.

It took some

coaxing, to be sure. Coker has previously

similar requests on the grounds of protecting proprietary interests.

Given his extensive experience in Florida (he

tells me he has conducted more than 200 statewide polls in Florida since 1984), Coker was

understandably reluctant about responding in this instance. So his cooperation

here is noteworthy. Hopefully, other pollsters follow his lead because the

general descriptions and incidence calculations provided above could be easily

replicated by every pollster and released online for every poll. Similarly, a

demographic composition table, like the one above, would be an easy addition to

the online documentation virtually every pollster and news organization makes

available for every poll.

On the other hand,

Towery's "secret formula" dodge has a fundamental flaw. Coke need not give away

its "secret formula" when it prints on every can, as required by law, a list of ingredients, the number of calories and the grams of carbohydrate and other

nutrients contained in each serving. As should be obvious, the our

Constitution's First Amendment precludes the sort of mandatory labeling for pollsters that the

FDA requires for food. However, pollsters like Towery ought to start thinking

about how to better label their own products in terms of their sample

composition, lest some snarky blogger ask, "What's an InsiderAdvantage?"