Pols, Polls and Pushback

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had some pretty harsh criticism of our latest poll today, charging in a radio interview that it was “deliberately rigged.” He's entitled, of course, to his opinion. But not to a distortion of the facts.

What’s his gripe? Gingrich made the comment on our Salt Lake City affiliate, KSL-AM, when asked about our finding that only 20 percent of Americans now identify themselves as Republicans, the fewest since September 1983 in ABC News/Washington Post polls. His reply:

“Well, it tells me first of all that the poll’s almost certainly wrong. It’s fundamentally different from Rasmussen. It’s fundamentally different from Zogby. It’s fundamentally different from Gallup. It’s a typical Washington Post effort to slant the world in favor of liberal Democrats.”

We've heard it before, from both sides: Democrats jump on data they don't like, Republicans do the same. The reality is that this poll, as all our work, was produced independently and with great care, including the highest possible methodological standards. And contrary to Gingrich, it happens to be in accord with most other recent good-quality surveys measuring political partisanship.

To examine Gingrich’s concern, consider the partisan self-identification reported in other recent publicly released polls rated as airworthy by ABC News standards. They range from 18 to 27 percent Republican, averaging 21 percent – almost precisely the same as our estimate.

Party ID Dem Rep Ind ABC/Post 10/18 33% 20 42 CBS 10/8 33 22 45 AP/GfK 10/5 33 21 26 Ipsos/McClatchy 10/5 33 19 48 Gallup 10/4 33 27 38 Pew 10/4 34 23 37 NBC/WSJ 9/20 31 18 43

Another place to look is at our own ABC/Post polls this year, to see if our 20 percent estimate is an outlier. Not: Per the table below, it’s almost identical to the 21 percent Republican self-identification in our last poll, and very near the 23 percent average we’ve seen across our polls this year:

ABC/Post: Party ID Dem Rep Ind 10/18/09 33% 20 42 9/12/09 32 21 43 8/17/09 35 25 34 7/18/09 33 22 41 6/21/09 35 22 37 4/24/09 35 21 38 3/29/09 36 25 33 2/22/09 36 24 34 1/16/09 35 23 36 ‘09 Mean 34 23 38

Nor is this out of pattern with the long-term trend in political partisanship in this country. After nearly a generation of gradual advance, the Republican Party in 2003 attained parity with the Democrats; on average that year, for the first time in our polling since 1981, equal numbers of Americans identified themselves as Democrats and as Republicans, 31 percent apiece.

But that trend since has been disrupted. In response to the war in Iraq and the increasingly unpopular presidency of George W. Bush, Republican self-identification has been declining since 2003. (It’s no coincidence that Republicans in 2008 made up their smallest share of the electorate since 1980.) The dire news for the GOP in party ID since 2004 is nothing new; we’ve been reporting it steadily the past five years. Here’s our chart:

Gingrich went on in his remark to KSL to talk about the generic horse race, measuring respondents’ preference for the Democratic or Republican candidate in their congressional district. Our result found a Democratic advantage of 51-39 percent. Gingrich again:

“As of last week Gallup shows Republicans ahead by 2 points generically in terms of who do you want to vote for Congress next year. Which was the biggest improvement, I think we gained 10 or 12 points in the last nine months. So unless something truly remarkable has happened – maybe winning the Nobel Prize for doing nothing has dramatically improved the popularity of the Democrats, but I doubt it. I think this poll was deliberately rigged and produced a result that’s fundamentally false.”

Gingrich apparently misspoke, since Gallup’s latest had the Democrats +2, not the Republicans. (He didn’t source the 10- or 12-point gain he was referring to; it’s not a Gallup result.) More to the point, let’s look next at the generic ballot results in recent good-quality polls (GP signifies general public; RV, registered voters):

2010 congressional preference Dem Rep Oth./Und. D-R gap ABC/Post 10/18 GP 51 39 11 12 CBS 10/8 RV 46 33 21 13 Gallup 10/4 RV 46 44 10 2 F&M Coll. 9/21 RV 43 30 27 13 Bloomberg 9/14 GP 40 32 28 8

There’s some variation here, for example in undecideds (a function of polling technique rather than a measure of actual indecision). But to dismiss our result as an outlier seems rather a stretch.

Gingrich made some slightly toned-down comments in a later interview with Steven Portnoy of ABC News Radio: “I really do think there’s a substantial challenge about your poll. It doesn’t fit Zogby, Rasmussen, Gallup, and I think it’s probably going to turn out to be an outlier. My guess is that the generic right now is very close.”

It’s hardly uncommon for political figures to try to spin data their way. Just about a year ago, on Nov. 1, 2008, asked about an ABC/Post poll that showed him trailing Barack Obama by 53-44 percent, John McCain said: “The first thing I can say is the ABC News poll has been the most wrong just about of any that I’ve seen. Our poll shows closure and an increase in undecided voters. It all depends on the turnout model that you’re talking about. Americans are shifting our way. All of the polls, with the exception of a couple like ABC, show us closing.”

Our final pre-election poll two days later likewise had the race at 53-44 percent. The next day McCain lost the election by 53-46 percent.

I’ve seen a stack of comments like McCain’s over the years. Political pushback is part of the game; inquiries about our methodology, questionnaires and analysis are welcome, and comparisons to other quality data often help. Far more rare are accusations of outright fabrication, such as Gingrich leveled today. They raise pushback to a new level, and an unfortunate one.

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