Polls have been showing a consistent lead for George W. Bush of 5 to 6 points since the Republican Convention. However, this actually translates into a bigger electoral lead than it appears, because John Kerry has a big lead in a couple of populous states like California and New York. This distorts the data and makes it appear that he is doing better nationally than he actually is.
To really understand what is going on, it is essential to look at state-level data. After all, it is the individual states, through the Electoral College, that ultimately choose the next president.
In years past, it was very hard to get state-level poll data. Few state polls were taken, and their results were mostly available only to political professionals. But now there are good state-level polls in almost every state. These can be used to give a much more accurate electoral vote count than can be inferred from national polls.
Fortunately, there are several Web sites that compile national and state-level polls on a daily basis and even draw electoral vote maps that are revised whenever new data is available.
As I have mentioned in previous columns, one of my favorites is a site called RealClearPolitics.com. It is really a one-stop shopping site for all the latest poll data -- national and state-level. One thing this Web site does that is helpful is to calculate an average of the latest national polls. In effect, they create a poll sample much larger than that in any single poll, which reduces both volatility and error.
Because national polls tend to be conducted by media organizations, they seldom report any polls other than their own. One consequence of this is that every media organization asks the same exact questions as other polls that appeared the day before. This adds nothing to our knowledge unless we read only one paper.
Thus, we have poll after poll after poll telling us what the president's job approval is, but very few polls asking in-depth questions about important policy questions. On those rare occasions when such questions are asked, they tend to be so poorly worded that one cannot draw any meaningful conclusions from them.
Fortunately, because of the Internet, anyone with a computer can get easy access to national polls, read the questions for themselves and draw their own conclusions. For this, I rely on PollingReport.com, a free site with every recent national poll on any subject that has been polled. It is extraordinarily useful.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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