Mellman: Good poll, bad numbers, accurate conclusion

Mellman: Good poll, bad numbers, accurate conclusion | The Hill

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People hold signs as President Joe Biden speaks at the Steamfitters Local 602 in Springfield, Va., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023.

The ABC News/Washington Post poll is one of the very best public surveys available.  

The specific numbers reported in its most recent iteration are probably not correct. 

The broad conclusions to which it points are probably right on target. 

Yes, these seemingly conflicting statements are all true at the same time. 

Gary Langer, who conducts the survey for ABC News and the Post, is a careful, thoughtful, and sophisticated methodologist — one of the best public pollsters laboring in this vineyard.  

Nonetheless, the specific numbers in the most recent sampling, which generated a great deal of press attention, are probably not accurate.   

One reason (among many) is that 100 percent of the interviews are conducted with respondents who answer their phones when they ring. These days, lots of people don’t answer their phones, especially their mobiles, when they don’t know who is calling.  

Publicly available records of earlier ABC/Post polls suggest about half the cell numbers reached by callers resulted in “no answer,” compared to about 10 percent of those dialed on landlines. 

In our work, we have found that those who do answer their phones are different from those who don’t. For example, phone answerers are more likely to be politically engaged, whereas those who don’t answer are more likely to be Democrats and supporters of President Biden. 

This may account for some of the anomalous results in the ABC/Post poll that others have pointed out. For example, Natalie Jackson noted that Donald Trump leading Biden by 11 points among 18–39-year-olds is “nuts.” It is, but such things can happen if you fail to reach young people who don’t answer their phones. 

We don’t have large peer-reviewed studies to prove this, or to validate the techniques our firm uses to circumvent the problem. And so, careful methodologist that he is, Langer sticks with what has been proven in decades past.  

However, I would argue that practical experience provides very strong support for the existence of the problem and the validity of the solution we employ. 

Because the ABC/Post poll is less likely to capture Biden voters, I don’t believe the president is running 6 points behind Trump, or that his job approval is 37 percent. In fact, no other poll shows Biden that far behind Trump, nor with an approval rating that low.  

Even including the ABC/Post poll, RealClearPolitics’ recent average suggests a tie, with Trump ahead by less than one point, and an average Biden approval of 42 percent. 

Three other recent polls put Biden in the lead by 2 or 3 points while another shows a tie. Only one other poll has Trump ahead.  

Nobody would suggest that any poll this month is somehow predictive of what will happen a year and a half from now.  

But my broad takeaway from all these polls is the same. At this moment, the race for the White House is a jump ball. The national popular vote (which is, after all, the only thing national polls measure) could go either way.  

That finding itself could shock many Democrats who, like me, believe Biden is doing a great job and see Trump as that exquisitely rare combination of total evil and complete incompetence.   

The simple fact is that no other poll suggests that judgment is shared by a majority of Americans. They all hint at a race that could go either way.

As we know, however, the national popular vote doesn’t decide presidential elections, the Electoral College does. 

Combining historical data with current polling puts Biden ahead in states worth over 280 electoral votes — another clear indication he can win. 

But his margins in several of those are razor-thin, just like the national popular vote. So although Biden can win, there is certainly no guarantee he will.  

That depends very much on what happens in the next year and a half. 

Mellman, president of The Mellman Group, has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years. He served as president of the American Association of Political Consultants and is a member of the Association’s Hall of Fame. He is also president of Democratic Majority for Israel.


Joe Biden

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