Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Poll Position

By Shawn Healy
If you are among the sliver of America already tuned into the 2008 election, you are without doubt deluded on a daily basis with public opinion polls, both of the national and state variety. It's sometimes difficult to get a handle on what all of this information means, and a number of caveats abound as we interpret their findings. What follows is a few tips from a self-confessed political junkie and numbers geek.

Polls are a mere snapshot in time. They take a picture of public opinion over a few days, but fail to account for the fact that public sentiments are continuously shifting, at least as they relate to candidates for public office (it is remarkably stable relative to issue positions). Rather than placing too much weight in a given poll, look for trends. Who's moving up, and who's falling through the floor. For instance, Mike Huckabee is gaining at the right time with the Iowa caucuses a mere four weeks away, while Fred Thompson's decline may represent an early death knell.

For this reason, pay attention to longitudinal data to circumvent the cross-sectional nature of polls. I visit on a regular basis because they show candidate poll performance across time, and also aggregate a series of polls at once. They use data points from each to arrive at the average position for each candidate.

This brings me to my next point: Don't place all of your eggs in one basket. A single poll is not necessarily an accurate depiction of the race. All polls account for errors, as they survey only a small sample of the electorate and make projections off of this data. In general, larger samples, so long as they are randomly constructed, equal lower margins of error.

Margins of error are statistical terms to reflect the possibility that the numbers reported in the sample vary from the general population. When a survey suggests a statistical dead heat, this typically means that the candidates are within the margin of error of one another. For instance, Barack Obama leads in Iowa according to the most recent Des Moines Register poll, but Hillary Clinton may be ahead of him when accounting for margin of error, and third place candidate, John Edwards, may even be ahead of Hillary. The projections offered in the poll, however, are the best-guess estimates of the current state of the race.

Early opinion polls, especially of a national nature, are indicative of name recognition and little more. This is why Hillary and Rudy Giuliani led the pack early on and maintain national leads. In the early caucus and primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, where voters see the candidates up close and personal on a daily basis, the numbers vary significantly. True, Hillary leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina, but Barack is closing in, and the Illinois Senator leads in Iowa (at least according to some polls). On the Republican side, Huckabee leads in Iowa (suggested by three recent polls), and Romney in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

The momentum gleaned from these early contests will likely translate into success elsewhere as a result of free media, momentum, and money flowing into campaign coffers, so for better or worse, discount national polls for their early state counterparts.

A crucial variable is who is being surveyed. John Edwards, for instance, finished second in the 2004 Iowa Caucuses and has a legion of supporters who have already showed up on caucus night for him, while Barack Obama is tremendously popular among young people in the state, many of whom tend not to vote when push comes to shove (colleges will also be on winter break on January 3rd). All the poll administrators can do is ask voters if they intend to caucus. Delivering them to the polls is the responsibility of campaigns. Turnout will decide who wins on election night, not intentions, meaning Edwards' support may indeed be more realistic.

On the other hand, Obama's support among young people may be underestimated in polls given their tendency to shun land lines for cellular phones. I for one have not had a landline for a decade, and 16% of households share this habit. Polling administrators tend to focus on home phones, and to date, I have received only one phone call conducting a poll for a local aldermanic race. In short, my opinions are typically not accounted for in opinion polls, and along with my counterparts, this may represent bias and add to the errors inherent in opinion polls.

What then, should we make of this barrage of data? Think of polls as a public thermometer taking the temperature of voters at a moment in time. As a native of Wisconsin, I was taught that if I didn't like the weather, I should wait five minutes for it to change. Although public sentiments aren't as fickle as a Midwestern spring, they are fluid enough for us to caution calling an election before it has even begun.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention our current special exhibit at the Freedom Museum, Vote4Me!: Inside a Presidential Election. One portion of the exhibit addresses the issue of polling data and presents many of the caveats I echoed above. It asks the visitor to play the role of presidential candidate and craft issue positions relative to three hot button issues: Iraq, taxes, and gay marriage. Then, these positions are placed alongside those of our previous visitors and the candidate is asked to emphasize those issues that resonate with the public, and downplay those without widespread backing. I encourage you to come and take your own temperature!


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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