VOTE 2012: Accuracy of the Polls

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Veteran pollsters Bruce Merrill and Mike O’Neil take a look back at the accuracy of polls on the presidential race. They will also discuss which groups of people voted in the election and how they affected the outcome.

Ted Simons: Election 2012 was a big win for President Obama as he was re-elected to another four years in the White House. But was Tuesday's vote a win for data-driven predictions from polling services? Here to talk about the accuracy of polls in this election cycle are two Valley-based pollsters, Bruce Merrill and Mike O'Neil. Good to have you both here, thanks for joining us.
Bruce Merrill: Good to be here.
Ted Simons: On "Arizona Horizon." We'll start with you, how accurate were these national polls?
Bruce Merrill: Overall, pretty darn accurate. All polls have sampling error, at least plus or minus 3%, sometimes, 5%. Most of the national polls were well within that margin and the national polls have been very accurate over the last several elections.
Ted Simons: What do you think, mike?
Mike O'Neil: I think the most impressive thing was that various poll aggregators who took all the polls, they produced weighted averages, that started with Nate Silver four years ago, who now writes for the New York Times. Mark Blumenthal does it for and there are two to three others. They got 51 out of 51 states right this time. Four years ago, Nate Silver got 50-51, missing only Indiana.
Ted Simons: With that information in hand, and obviously, some folks got it more right than others, but in relatively a clear picture, it seems as though the Romney campaign, the candidate perhaps even himself and certainly the Romney backers were genuinely taken aback by the results of this election because they were seeing and hearing things from polls and pundits that didn't follow the narrative.
Bruce Merrill: What Mike and I both know, you can take poll data and give it to two different people, you'll get two completely different interpretations. Polling is just collecting the data but it the real skill, the real art is what does the data mean? And I think one can argue that the Romney people really never understood the changes, the demographic changes particularly, that were occurring in this country. So their view of their data I think would be very different than somebody else's view.
Mike O'Neil: I think it's a huge difference this time. This was a massive victory for people who actually systematically collect data, decide what models they're going to use to collect it and how they're going to analyze it, as opposed to another group of people, and these were optimized by some commentators, who started from a conclusion that they wanted to reach and invented a rationale to get there. And they started to believe their own Kool-Aid and they were genuinely shocked.
Ted Simons: Some commentators had Romney with over 300 electoral votes.
Mike O'Neil: And based on nothing other than their own belief systems. It was crazy.
Bruce Merrill: In other words, even if they got polling data that showed something different, they wouldn't believe it.
Mike O'Neil: And you saw that. What was this, I forget the name of the site, the polls are all wrong or something dot com and they invented rationales. They said you're underrepresenting Republicans. They think you can match to some preexisting thing, which you can't. The whole purpose of a poll is to determine what the current partisan disposition, if it's a democratic year, you will have more people identify as democrats. You cannot presume that which you're trying to measure.
Ted Simons: What about state polls? There wasn't a heck of a lot of state polling done.
Bruce Merrill: Not, at least in Arizona. You know, polling to do it well, to do it right, is pretty darn expensive. And so you have people that are making a lot of money like Mike to do it -- [ Laughter ] But there's not a lot of polls that have been available for the last two election cycles here in terms of providing data to help people make decisions.
Ted Simons: What little was seen, did it seem --
Mike O'Neil: The thing about these models that you can develop, they are incredibly accurate if you have a lot of data to work with. There was not enough -- people would ask me based on a few little robo polls, I said A., I don't trust them and B. it's a month old, and it's two polls, it's simply not enough. It's not a fair question. There wasn't enough there for one to reasonably presume that it would be accurate.
Bruce Merrill: The sad thing about that is that the richness of polling is really in the breakdowns of the polls, the demographics and the psychographics, particularly in Arizona. We're a population where you have a lot of old people but a disproportionate number of young people. Hispanics are a growing population here, so the richness is what Mike is saying. If you've got the data, it's more important sometimes to know who has an opinion than what public opinion is.
Ted Simons: Let's go with some of the information we do have regarding the national election and focus in towards Arizona. What turned this election for President Obama?
Bruce Merrill: Well, frankly I think it was two things. Particularly, number one, the Democrats understood four years ago that the groups that they were going to need four years later, they really focused a lot of good research, they identified who was really supporting them and they spent four years getting them ready and delivering them to the polls. So I really think you have to give them an awful lot of credit and you don't see this because the other thing that they did well is the social media. And you don't see that. It's like an underground river but they did a magnificent job I think, identifying their people and getting them to the polls on Election Day.
Ted Simons: What do you think turned it for the president?
Mike O'Neil: The electorate that came out to vote, there was speculation all year round, will the young people come out to vote like they did in 2008? They came out slightly more. Will the minorities, the blacks in particular, who were excited in 2008 come out in 2012? They came out again and the Hispanic percentage was up by 2%.
Ted Simons: So was this -- I'm remember reading this, so I'm getting my questions right, is this the election where demographics really did show perhaps more than others?
Mike O'Neil: Absolutely, and there is the contrast, by the way, in 2010, those groups did not come out in large numbers. There wasn't a big shift in attitudes between 2008 and 2010 when the Republicans won big. It's just that the people at the fringe of the democratic vote stayed home and the population of people who were voting in 2008 excluded those heavily Democratic groups. They came back in 2012.
Bruce Merrill: I felt -- I had been saying all along that if Romney lost this election, this might surprise some people but it would be because of his selection for vice-president, with Ryan. Now, the reason -- I'm not comparing Ryan with Palin. Ryan's a very brilliant young articulate man. But what it showed to me is that Romney's view and you would think if he had good data, he wouldn't have had this view, but it moved them so far to the right that I think the Republicans were simply out of the mainstream of where the demographic changes are taking America.
Mike O'Neil: Again, the issue of who voted? Romney got the exact same percentage of the white folk that Ronald Reagan got when Ronald Reagan won 400 electoral votes. So with that in mind, Democrats have obviously figured this out, what do the Republicans do? It sounds like -- I'm hearing some Republican pundits, some folks on the right side of the aisle, our next candidate needs to be more conservative, more of a Republican than Mitt Romney. Does that make sense?
Mike O'Neil: No, not if you want to win. You have to be within the bubble to come up with that idea. You're not going to get the Hispanic vote by hiring a mariachi band to play at your gig. It has to be sustained and has to be credible I think it has to be more than having Marco Rubio making a speech or two. They have a problem in they have a significant component, the Tea Party component of the party that is hostile to immigration, that is going to be very difficult to convince Hispanics they're not hostile to browns.
Ted Simons: Compare that to Arizona. You look at the map and you see a whole lot of blue surrounding Arizona, except for Utah. What's going on down here?
Bruce Merrill: Mike's right. The Republican Party has moved to become a much whiter, older, elite party, when the demographics are moving in the opposite direction. Now what's happening in Arizona? Because of immigration, because of the retirement community, a lot of older military people, the party in Arizona and the population in Arizona is kind of more older and more elite than some of the surrounding states. But that may change with the growing Hispanic population.
Ted Simons: Did we see a growing Hispanic population? There are a lot of votes out there that haven't been counted, I feel like we're treading water a little bit here. But did we feel that -- obviously, around the country, the demography was destiny. Arizona the same thing or not quite yet?
Bruce Merrill: I don't know. I haven't seen the actual data. I think the Hispanic vote may have ticked up a percentage or two, but it obviously wasn't enough to elect Carmona.
Mike O'Neil: And the net Republican over Democrat margin in the last four years went up from 5% to 6%. I heard they registered 35,000 Hispanics, which is frankly underwhelming, in terms of dealing with something of this magnitude. That's the micro-answer. I think if we look out 15 to 20 years, we become purple and we turn blue. This is a southwestern phenomenon. New Mexico is first, Nevada is second, and Colorado is third, and we're next.
Ted Simons: What do we take from this election? What do you walk away with?
Bruce Merrill: Well, again, I think the Romney people really never had a good understanding of the changing demographics and psychographics in this country. And I think Romney is the last of his generation frankly. He would have been a transitional kind of a candidate, and the Republican Party is going to have to become much more inclusive, it's got to go out and reach more into the middle, bring new, exciting leaders in or it's going to be a permanent minority party.
Ted Simons: What do we take from it?
Mike O'Neil: One more factor. It wasn't just the loss of the presidency. The Republicans lost 25 out of 33 Senate races.
Ted Simons: SO?
Mike O'Neil: They can win in tiny little districts at the congressional level, but when you get to the statewide level, they're in trouble.
Bruce Merrill: And sometimes, we need to talk about these huge amounts of money like the Coke brothers that are coming into states like Arizona and literally identifying moderates and replacing them with conservatives, it's something that has frightening consequences.
Mike O'Neil: What this election shows is you can't buy the presidency but you can buy legislators on the cheap.
Ted Simons: We'll leave it at that. Gentlemen, good to have you here, thanks for joining us, we appreciate it.
Bruce Merrill: Good to be here.

Bruce Merrill:Pollster; Mike O'Neil:Pollster;

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