10/31/2012 01:12 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2012

Entering Polling Darkness

Even without a mega-storm blasting the Eastern states, we were headed
into a period of polling uncertainty, but the storm intensifies the
cloudiness of polling predictions from this point forward. Like
everyone else, we will take note of every new tidbit of information,
especially reputable polls in presidential swing states like Florida and
Colorado that were not in Sandy's path of destruction, as well as the
key Senate race battleground states, but even these will grow
increasingly unreliable as election day draws closer.

The key point to understand that even a professional pollster will
tell you, is that public opinion polls are extremely valuable, but the
least of their value lies in telling you who is ahead, and especially
who is going to win the next contest. The famous and most reported
"horse race" question: "If the election were held today, for whom would
you vote?" is the least interesting question in any well-crafted
survey. Rather than reading the poll to get tomorrow's news today, or
more accurately next Wednesday's news but possibly incorrectly, we
recommend you read the polls to understand what voters do and do not
want today and for the coming few years. They will tell you that quite
clearly, without any fog of war or hurricane.

The polls will be wrong:

With Gallup suspending
its rolling tracking poll of the presidential election for at least two
nights, and other pollsters viewing key Eastern states from Virginia to
New Hampshire as unreachable or at least unreliable for new data
through Wednesday night, it is likely that the polls we have now are the
best predictors we are likely to get, and the polls we have now are too
close to tell us who is going to win this election.

Ever since the false prediction of an Obama victory in the New
Hampshire primary of 2008, we have been particularly suspect of polls
taken in the final days leading up to Election Day in hotly contested
territories. Even if the weather is clear, voters in Virginia and Ohio
are reaching the point where they stop answering the telephone and will
not even come to the door if it rings. The problem for voters in the
key battlegrounds is not just too many polls, but it is that the
legitimate surveys are indistinguishable from the other persuasion calls
and get-out-the-vote campaigns dialing through the same voter lists to
reach registered independents and infrequent voters to get them to turn

For this reason we place more stock in a poll taken on the Tuesday,
Wednesday and Thursday in the week before an election than polls taken
on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday right before the polls open (for those
voters that still wait until Election Day to line up and vote in person
the old fashioned way). But these one-week-out surveys are precisely
the polls Sandy has disrupted. Horrors -- we may have to wait until the
votes are counted to know who will win Campaign 2012.

The real value of opinion surveys

Just because we don't trust the survey horse race results, this does
not mean we do not like surveys. Far from it (and for full disclosure,
remember, public opinion surveys pay our mortgage). The sad news about
polling is that all the value of surveys is what most of the press and
pundits throw away. Surveys give voters a unique chance to express
their views, hopes, fears and desires beyond the choices they are
presented at the voting box, and in 2012 voters could not be speaking
more clearly.

Unlike the ephemeral choice between candidates that many see as
relatively poor vessels for expressing their preferences, answers to
questions about policy and the direction of the nation have been quite
stable all year (which partly explains why news editors pay them less
attention). Voters want politicians to stop blaming and criticizing
each other and they want them to work together to solve the nation's
greatest challenges -- getting the economy moving and addressing our
national debt.

Voters oppose entrenched ideological positions of the right and left
and my-way-or-the-highway ultimatums in favor of compromise and balanced
solutions. Specifically, they want to see a plan to get federal
spending under control while making investments in long-term economic
prosperity and a more secure middle class. They want a plan that
strengthens the long term viability of Medicare and Social Security, and
they want a nation at peace.

The political campaigns know this is true, which is why Barack Obama
has been trying to govern as a moderate and why his opposition has tried
to paint him as an extremist (or Socialist). It is why Mitt Romney is
now trying to explain that his tax rate cuts for the rich are not really
cuts and blur his proposals to privatize Medicare and FEMA. Both
campaigns are reading the polls and reaching the same conclusions, which
is why both sides are essentially running a campaign that says, "I have
a balanced plan to bring the two parties together and the other guy is a
reckless (right or left)-wing ideologue."

The real tragedy will come if, and when, after one side has won a
narrow victory, the winners declare an endorsement of very same
philosophies and positions they tried to minimize to get those votes in
the final days of the election. The public opinion surveys are the
voters' only voice in interpreting the election's final outcome. We can
only hope the leaders they elect will pay as much attention to this
expression after the election is over.