Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Thursday, February 7, 2013

U-M expert to help Gallup review political polling methods

Professor Michael Traugott, a nationally recognized expert in political communication and polls, is assisting the Gallup Organization with reviewing its survey methodology used in political polling.

  Michael Traugott

The polling organization tracks attitudes and behaviors worldwide on many topics, including the U.S. presidential elections. Traugott will examine the recent election in which Gallup estimated a stronger performance by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who lost to President Barack Obama.

"Because Gallup has been a leader in the polling industry and very forthcoming about their methods, I expect that whatever we learn will be of general use and value to all pollsters," said Traugott, a professor of communication studies and political science.

Some preliminary results might be available by spring, but Gallup officials also may design additional studies to test specific hypotheses developed with Traugott.

According to Gallup officials, they will review their methodology used over the years in the context of last November's elections. Some aspects include:

• Cell phone sampling and phone-status weighting. (Half of the interviews during the final month before the election were conducted by cell phone.)

• Registered-voter screening process.

• Likely-voter screening process.

• Measurement of early voting.

• Impact of campaign contact and get-out-the-vote efforts on the final voting electorate.

During the campaign, Gallup produced estimates that showed a stronger performance for Romney than most other polls. In its final estimate, the organization showed Romney ahead by a statistically insignificant one percentage point.

Obama, however, won the election by about four percentage points, indicating "a relatively consistent underestimate of support for Obama or his margin over Romney," Traugott said.

Some observers think this was, in part, due to a sophisticated and successful ground game by the Obama campaign in nine key battleground states — eight of which went to the president.

"The two candidates were very close in the pre-election polls conducted in those states, and one might have expected they would break evenly for the two candidates," Traugott said.

Traugott has had a long-standing association with the Gallup Organization, going back to when he was an undergraduate at Princeton. He worked part-time when it was headquartered there. During his senior year, he served as a research assistant for George Gallup during the 1964 election campaign.

"He was a larger-than-life figure, and for me it was a life-changing experience," Traugott said. "He knew about the work of Michigan political scientists who published 'The American Voter' in 1960, as well as of the Survey Research Center. He and the professor for whom I wrote my senior thesis encouraged me to go to graduate school at Michigan. That was the best career decision I could have made."

Traugott has written or co-authored 12 books and more than 100 journal articles or book chapters. He has been the president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, the World Association for Public Opinion Research and the Midwest Association for Public Opinion Research.

He led AAPOR's review of polling in the New Hampshire Democratic primary in 2008 in which virtually all polls incorrectly predicted Obama would win. In 2010, he received the AAPOR Award for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement.

Traugott, a senior research scientist in the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research, currently is working on a project that investigates the data quality in the kinds of low-cost data collection methodologies that some news organizations are using or reporting on to produce news about public opinion.