On the Friday after the Democratic convention, Tom Jensen tried to reach out and touch 10,000 Ohioans. He wanted to ask them, among other questions, whom they planned to vote for in November: Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? This sort of thing is easier—and harder—than you might think. As the director of Public Policy Polling, Jensen has at his disposal 1,008 phone lines hooked up to IVR (interactive voice response) software that enables PPP to make 400,000 automated calls a day. All Jensen needs to do is feed the 10,000 phone numbers into a computer, record the series of questions he wants to ask, press a few buttons, and voilà: He has a poll in the field. That’s the easy part. The hard part starts with getting people to answer the phone. Beginning that Friday night around six and then five more times over the course of the next two days—in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings—PPP called those 10,000 Ohioans; by Sunday night at eight, only 1,072 of them had been reached. Still, for Jensen’s purposes, that was sufficient, and he got to work assembling his poll.
And that’s where things get even more difficult. The 1,072 Ohioans who participated in PPP’s poll were, as is the case with almost every poll taken today, older and whiter than the electorate. As a result, Jensen decided to give more weight to certain respondents’ answers. “If the whole world was releasing unweighted polls,” he says, “Mitt Romney would be heading to an easy election.” For instance, although African-Americans accounted for just 7 percent of the respondents to PPP’s poll, Jensen believes—based on census data, past elections, and the current political environment—that black voters will make up 12 percent of the Ohio electorate come November. So Jensen multiplied his African-American respondents’ answers by 1.5. Similarly, only 7 percent of the respondents were under the age of 30; since Jensen projects young people will make up 14 or 15 percent of Ohio’s electorate, he multiplied his 18-to-29-year-old respondents’ answers by two. After some additional statistical tinkering, Jensen had his poll, and a little past ten on Sunday night, PPP released the results.
Once upon a time, polls came and went without much fanfare or even notice. That time is gone. Today, a good portion of Americans plan their lives—or at least their Twitter feeds—around the latest political numbers. As every good political junkie knows, each day at 9:30 a.m. Eastern time, Rasmussen Reports releases its daily national tracking poll; three and a half hours later, Gallup comes out with its own. Wednesdays are typically when Quinnipiac University, the New York Times, and CBS unveil their “swing state” polls; on Thursdays, it’s NBC, The Wall Street Journal, and Marist College’s turn to share their “battleground state” polls. And Sunday nights are for PPP—a three-person public-opinion-research firm in North Carolina that produces upwards of 800 polls a year. “Sunday’s a dead news day,” Jensen says of his poll-release strategy, “so people who are living and breathing this presidential election are just sitting around all day nervously waiting for PPP’s latest poll to come out.”
Jensen does his best to feed those anxieties. Like a record-company executive who leaks his best band’s new single, he begins dropping hints about PPP’s poll results as soon as the data starts coming in. “Things definitely looking good for Obama in the polls we started tonight,” he tweeted that Friday, a few hours after he sent the Ohio and four other polls into the field (or rather through the computer system). By Saturday morning, he was telling PPP’s more than 40,000 Twitter followers that those polls were “looking like … 2008.” And on Sunday night, a few hours before he posted the Ohio results, he tweeted this tidbit: “[L]ooks like Obama leads there by more than 2008 margin of victory.” So when Jensen revealed that PPP found Obama leading Romney 50 to 45 in Ohio—0.4 percent better than Obama had performed against John McCain in 2008 and, more important, two points more than Obama had led Romney in a PPP poll of Ohio in August—it wasn’t exactly a surprise.
That didn’t stop all hell from breaking loose. Democrats celebrated the result—one of the first pieces of evidence that the president had received a bounce from their party’s convention. Republicans, for their part, vented their spleen. Many accused PPP (which does work for Democratic candidates and liberal interest groups) of bias—of tweaking their formulas to produce a desired result. On Twitter, a parody account, Partisan Policy Polls, deadpanned: “Ohio voters favored Gov Romney 52-47. A follow-up question of ‘Why are you so racist?’ resulted in a switch to 50-45 lead for Pres Obama.”