Illustrating the Silliness of Polls

Over at Open Left, they’ve noted something about national polls in the general election. Specifically, they’ve found that two of the most famous polling companies, Rasmussen and Gallup, consistently poll a closer race everyone else. In the 34 Gallup and Rasmussen polls taken since the general election began, Obama has been up an average of 2.2%. In all the polls taken by 11 other polling companies, Obama has been up 5.4%.

Most times a Gallup or Rasmussen poll comes out, it fuels the conventional wisdom that Obama is under-performing because he is locked into a dogfight in a election season heavily favoring Democrats. As a result, everyone from the media to committed Democrats freak out.

It’s nonsense. The counterfactuals could easily go in either direction. If Gallup and Rasmussen were more in line with everyone else, Obama would be seen as having a thin but comfortable lead. If a few more polling companies were like G & R, McCain might even be winning. The lesson? Don’t freak out and don’t get overconfident either. Things on the whole are better for Obama than the media’s evaluation of his performance suggests (after all, as Nate Silver noted, “If you had told a Democrat a year ago that, on the last day of July, their candidate would be ahead in Ohio and Florida, well ahead in Pennsylvania , way ahead in California, tied in Montana, within single digits in a couple of states that went really red in 2000 and 2004, they’d be pretty thrilled with that set of polling.”) but things can change at any moment, and have in the past.