In Florida, a poll grabs headlines—and raises questions

The situation for the GOP may not be as dire as Quinnipiac's results suggest

FLORIDA — Supporters of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney woke up to some grim news Wednesday. According to a poll conducted by Quinnipiac University for CBS News and The New York Times, their candidate is slipping badly among Florida voters. And the situation is even worse for Congressman Connie Mack, the GOP nominee for U.S Senate.

But while several recent polls do show a favorable trend here for Democrats, there are important questions about the value of the latest numbers—questions that the coverage here tended to raise either after the fact, toward the end of stories, or not at all.

The lede of this Wednesday morning blog entry from the Orlando Sentinel relayed the topline numbers and captured the general tone:

Following disappointing polling numbers for Republicans on Tuesday, today’s Quinnipiac University poll confirms a trend of slipping support for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and U.S. Senate nominee Connie Mack IV.

The Q poll released this morning, in conjunction with CBS News and The New York Times, shows Romney trailing President Barack Obama by 9 points in Florida, 10 points in Ohio and 12 points in Pennsylvania, meaning he now is playing fourth-quarter come-from-behind ball in the swing states he desperately needs to win the general election’s electoral count.

The Quinnipiac poll also tracks other recent polls in Florida’s U.S. Senate race, showing Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson pulling away from U.S. Rep. Mack. Quinnipiac has Nelson ahead with 53 percent, to 39 percent for Mack.

The Sentinel’s opening was typical of Florida reporting about the poll. The lede from the News Service of Florida, in an article picked up by papers like Gannett’s News-Press, was:

President Obama has opened up a wider lead over Republican challenger Mitt Romney among Florida voters, a new poll released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University found.

And “The Buzz,” the politics blog of the Tampa Bay Times, had grabbed the CBS story and posted portions of it by 6 a.m. Wednesday. An excerpt:

In Florida, Mr. Obama’s edge over Romney has risen from three points before the political conventions to nine points today. His gains are due to improved performance among women, white voters and seniors. Nearly half of Florida Democrats now say they are more enthusiastic about voting than in the past—up from 24 percent at the start of August, and only slightly less than the percentage of Florida Republicans who are more enthusiastic. Two in three Florida likely voters support the DREAM Act policies put in place by the president to allow young illegal immigrants who came to the country as children to obtain work permits and not face deportation.

But as Wednesday morning passed into afternoon, doubts about the poll began to surface—egged along by an aggressive counterpunch from the state’s Republican Party that was bolstered by national GOP commentators.

The GOP’s basic argument is that the Quinnipiac poll, along with some other recent polls, includes too many Democrats in its sample and gives an unrealistic picture of what the actual electorate will look like. One of the better summaries of the debate was offered Wednesday morning by The Week.

Twelve hours after the Tampa Bay Times posted the results of the Quinnipiac poll, political writer Adam Smith wrote that he has grave doubts about the results:

…But is there a single objective political professional in Florida who actually believes Obama is leading by 9 points? In Florida?!

Maybe I’ll eat my words on Nov. 6, but I loudly echo Florida GOP Chairman Lenny Curry’s sentiments on Twitter earlier today: “If you believe this mornings Fl Q poll I have swamp land to sell you. Come on man! This is Florida.”

So this brings us back to a complaint we’ve heard constantly from Florida political consultants on both sides of the aisle: Too many polls are based on an assumed electorate that has zero chance of occurring and therefore give a flawed view of the political landscape. (Quinnipiac has addressed this concern)

Readers can click through to Smith’s post and the embedded links for more on the debate about whether poll results should be weighted for party ID. But there’s another important point here: even among surveys that take a similar approach to this question, like The Washington Post/ABC News poll, Quinnipiac’s findings are an outlier. As Mark Blumenthal of HuffPost Pollster wrote Wednesday:

In Florida, a state widely considered a must-win for Romney, results ranged from a whopping 9 point Obama lead (53 to 43 percent) on the new CBS/Times/Quinnipiac poll, to a 4 point Obama advantage on the Washington Post poll (51 to 47 percent), to a much narrower 1 point edge for Obama (48 to 47 percent) on a Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Mason Dixon poll.

Most of the other polls have been closer to the Post and Mason-Dixon results…

Blumenthal’s tracking model, which incorporates data from all public polls, puts Obama up by nearly five points in Florida, while the Real Clear Politics polling average puts the president’s lead at about three points. Both are meaningful advantages, but well below the wide margin of the Quinnipiac poll.

As Blumenthal notes, decisions about how to weight samples and select for likely voters are as much art as science. But even setting aside methodological disputes, polls will occasionally produce outliers, so news accounts should always take a broader look at the data. On this score, the Sentinel post actually did better than most—after that lede that emphasized the poor numbers for Romney, it noted that other recent polls had found a closer race. The News Service of Florida article, by contrast, delves into the Q poll’s results for different subgroups but never pauses to look at other recent surveys.

Meawhile, The New York Times itself used the poll as to add drama to its portrait of the Romney campaign on the brink of defeat in the final weeks of the campaign—without pointing readers to other data that would have offered a less stark picture. (The Times provides its customary note on methodology but does not appear to have addressed the recent critiques of the Quinnipiac poll.)

I have long been a critic of polls and news reporting of those polls. In January, I took The Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times to task for questionable reporting of a poll those papers sponsored. As I said at the time: “News organizations are getting increasingly sloppy with reporting on—and addressing the shortcomings of—their own polls, not to mention asking tough questions of all the other polls that seem to pop up every day.”

Unfortunately, this complaint still holds true. The unpleasant fact is that news organizations have always seen polls as a marketing tool. The scores of polls being done by news organizations of all sizes are more about name recognition for the organization than about informing voters. Meanwhile, the steady stream of polls has become a reliable source of fodder for content-hungry politics blogs around the country—even if, as in the case of the Tampa Bay Times here, a second post has to go up hours later debunking the first post.

It is long past due for news organizations to reconsider the worth of these polls (especially at the presidential level, where we have more data than we need); do a better, more transparent job of explaining them and responding to criticism; and think twice before publishing a poll that they have not been directly involved in producing. What is happening now is a disservice to voters.

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Brian E. Crowley is editor of Crowley Political Report. A political journalist for more than two decades, Crowley is an analyst for WPTV NewsChannel 5 in West Palm Beach and is a principal of ImMEDIAcy Public Relations.