Today, six weeks and two days from the presidential election, we publish results of a statewide poll that asked Floridians which candidate they favor for our nation’s highest office. It shows President Barack Obama with a statistically insignificant one-point lead over Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The margin of error is 3.5 percent.
Often, when we write about polls, we get questions. Why do we bother with polling? Doesn’t polling lead to horse race coverage over issues coverage? Why should polls matter to me?
As we present these results, I want to share why we think smart polling can be instructive, and what we — and our readers — can learn from them between now and Election Day.
First, a bit of background. Done with El Nuevo Herald and our news partners at the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9, this is the second of four statewide polls we will conduct and publish between now and Nov. 6. We’re working with Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, an independent firm that conducts public policy and political research for news media and other organizations.
Our first poll appeared in mid-July, before the Republican and Democratic political conventions. At the time, Mitt Romney had not picked U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan to be his running mate. It was a month before Florida’s Aug. 14 primaries.
It showed Florida was a toss-up then, as well (Obama 46, Romney 45, with 7 percent undecided). We also asked Floridians their opinions on Gov. Rick Scott (he was unpopular with a majority of voters even though some of his policies had support.
We’ve timed our second poll to be taken long enough after the conventions for any post-convention “bounce” to flatten. Field work for our third poll will be done after the first major presidential debate on Oct. 3, and it will be published the weekend of Oct. 11. Our last poll will be within 10 days of Election Day — at a time when some people will be voting early, either in person or by absentee ballot.
How should a reader make sense of all these numbers?
First, it’s true, polls do track the horse race. And people do want to know how their candidate is doing, nationally and in our state. Because Florida is a key swing state — a prize for the campaigns — the eyes of the nation are on us.
Polls can give more valuable insights than merely who is leading the race.
“You can get an idea from voters on what issues are helping them make their decision,” says Sergio Bustos, The Herald’s politics and state government editor. “It gives you a scientific look into what people are thinking on some very important subjects. ... You learn what messages from the candidates are working and which are not.”
Tom Fiedler, The Herald’s former political editor and executive editor, said polls help voters understand why candidates are behaving in different ways. Polls help show “where there is movement, who are the persuadables, the people who are in a position to be moved. Candidates are looking at their own polls, looking for that profile person also, and they tailor their message and their outreach in advertising, social media, to reach people,”
Fiedler, now the dean of the School of Communication at Boston University, said that for voters, polls “enable the consumer of the election to understand what is happening at a different level.”
Brad Coker, who heads up polling for Mason-Dixon, said the overall trends — and sometimes the issues — will change as the election gets closer. A lot of people are leaning one way or another, but they may change their minds as new issues emerge.
“The key numbers tend to be around how the president is handling his job, whether the economy is getting better,” and there will be news developments on those issues, Coker said. “After the conventions, the commentators all said that no one was talking about foreign policy. Suddenly foreign policy is part of the debate. ... Lots of things can change.”
So stay tuned.