Saturday, October 13, 2012

Can We Bet on the Presidential Polls?


PBS News has a great behind-the-scenes look at the polls and other methods for checking the Presidential odds. One point made by an expert in the video (see transcript below) is that some Democrats might have skewed the polls after the first Presidential Debate because they were so fed up the morning after and hung up on pollsters. Yet anyone who was Republican in the same demographic (age, gender, income level, location) might have enjoyed talking about the debate, so their data got recorded instead. Hence, the polls tightened up all of a sudden and Obama lost his lead. That makes sense to me.

If the swings in the polls are making you dizzy and all this feels like a big crapshoot, well . . . that's basically what it is. So the conclusion for PBS Newshour is that betting and gambling websites might be just as accurate, and perhaps more soothing to ruffled voters, than the more academic pollsters who care more about who is voting and why.
Here are a few websites mentioned:
Iowa Markets

PBS Transcript Here
PAUL SOLMAN: Earlier this week, Quinnipiac surveyed voters in three of this election's swing states: Colorado, Wisconsin and Virginia.

MAN: Your telephone number was randomly generated by a computer, and I need to pick someone at random from your household to participate in this survey.

PAUL SOLMAN: To make sure they're polling a scientific sample of likely voters, these callers use random-digit dialing of landlines and cell phones. But that's just for starters, says Doug Schwartz.

DOUGLAS SCHWARTZ, Director, Quinnipiac University Polling Institute: When we call a household, we don't automatically speak to whoever picks up the phone, because they tend to be women. We speak to whoever has the next birthday in the household.

We also call over several days, because we don't want to just reach the easy-to-reach people. For example, seniors, people with young children are easier to reach. So we will call a phone number at least four times between 6:00 and 9:00 during the week, but then we will also try on weekends.

We also conduct interviewing in Spanish. So, it all gets back to this principle of making sure that everyone has an equal chance of being selected.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, of course, not everyone wants that chance.

Do people get angry at you?

DEETA MOUNING, Quinnipiac University Polling Institute: Oh, yes, they do. They blast us out.


But since every pollster claims to come up with a scientific random sample eventually, how can the results be Romney up by four and Obama down by three at the very same time?

A hefty margin of error, says newly minted Ph.D. economist David Rothschild, who works at Microsoft Research in Manhattan.

So, Rothschild incorporates models, polls, and markets into a constantly updated forecast on his blog

Last we looked, his data mash-up gave President Obama a 65 percent chance to win.

DAVID ROTHSCHILD, Microsoft Research: I never sweat too much about any individual poll because there's too much noise.

PAUL SOLMAN: Too much noise meaning?

DAVID ROTHSCHILD: Too much movement.

PAUL SOLMAN: Take the so-called bumps after a vice presidential pick, or a convention. Or take the first presidential debate. Say you're a Democrat the morning after.

DAVID ROTHSCHILD: A pollster calls you, you don't want anything to do with it. You're just -- you're upset. You hang up that phone.

They call another guy, exact same demographics as you, because they're trying to fill some sort of demographic hole or whatnot. He's a Republican. He's stoked. He wants to yell for how excited he is for Romney.

The same person on paper looks like he switched to Republican, but what happened really is, is that the Republicans want to talk that day vs. a Democrat who is like, I'm not even answering the phone. I'm in a bad mood. Obama screwed up last night. So...

PAUL SOLMAN: Between prediction markets and polls, which do you trust?

DAVID ROTHSCHILD: Prediction markets, because prediction markets have all of this polling information available to them, as well as additional information.


Through this one, the Iowa Market, 1,600 people place their bets, with a $500 limit per punter....

Director Joyce Berg:

JOYCE BERG: Right now, the markets are favoring Obama. If you look at the winner-take-all market, that market is showing our traders believe there's an 80 percent chance that Obama will get more than half the popular vote.

PAUL SOLMAN: That was before the first presidential debate, however. The odds are now much lower.

But they're still above 60 percent that President Obama will win the popular vote.

So, who's right, the professors, the pollsters, or the plungers?

. . . JOYCE BERG: So, we have gone back over time since the '88 election, looked at over 900 polls, and compared the IEM prediction to the poll prediction, and found, in 75 percent of the cases, the IEM was more accurate than the polls.

We also look at night-before forecasts, and there, in that case, we are usually within about 1.3 percent of the actual election outcome.

PAUL SOLMAN: For the latest odds from Iowa, Intrade and Betfair, just go to our Making Sense website, where we link to all of them in real time.

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