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.
Unfortunately, PollingReport charges for access to state polls. But there are a number of sites that now have state-level data for major political races. RealClearPolitics is one. Others are Tripias.com and Electoral-vote.com. Both will automatically draw electoral vote maps of the United States so that one can easily see how the presidential race is breaking out geographically. Similar data is also available on some newspaper Web sites, such as that of the Los Angeles Times.
Poll data isn't the only useful electoral information now available on the Internet. There are also several sites with in-depth information about financial contributions to major candidates. The best known is OpenSecrets.org, which is operated by the Center for Responsive Politics. It is a simple matter to look up anyone's name and find out to whom they have made campaign contributions in this or recent election cycles.
WhiteHouseforSale.org is another useful Web site for campaign contributions. One can easily find all the biggest contributors to George Bush or John Kerry -- a useful way to find the names of future Cabinet secretaries and such. Fundrace.org takes the data another step and organizes political contribution data geographically so that one can find out which candidates one's own neighbors are contributing to. Maps are provide for a few big cities so that one can see which neighborhoods tilt toward Bush and which ones tilt toward Kerry.
With these kinds of resources, it is now possible for anyone to have almost as much information as the people running the Bush or Kerry campaigns. Using this information, it is even possible to make money. There are several sites where one can bet real money on the election.
The oldest is the Iowa Electronic Market at the University of Iowa. It was originally set up to teach students about futures markets, but it is now used by political professionals to see what markets are saying about their candidates. Lately, they have been showing Bush with a 2 to 1 lead over Kerry.
Two other sites where one can also bet on the presidential election are TradeSports.com and Intrade.com. They also show Bush with a comfortable lead as this is written.
In sum, you, too, can be a political professional, make prognostications and even make money on politics if you want to. The tools are all there on the Internet.