Parsing political polls: Are national numbers relevant?


The latest national political poll out today shows President Obama and his Republican competitor Mitt Romney tied among voters on the economy, while the president holds a slight lead in overall popularity.

The Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 49% of voters would pick Obama and 46% would choose Romney if the presidential election were held now.

In terms of which man voters have more confidence in to handle the rocky economy, it’s a tie at 47%.

But how important, or how telling, is a national poll released in May?

Craig Smith, a principal at political polling and research firm Penn Schoen Berland, has worked in the last eight Democratic presidential campaigns and was political director in the Clinton White House. He explained that state-level polling is more useful to campaigns, particularly in terms of measuring support among important demographics, such as women or Hispanic voters.  

“The number that’s least helpful is the [question] ‘If the election was being held tomorrow, how would you vote?’ Because the election isn’t tomorrow,” he told Lean Forward.

Moreover, national polls represent a national popular vote, rather than the way our political system works, which is through the state-by-state electoral college. “This is a race for who is going to get 270,” he added.


There are three relevant times to look at national polls before November, Smith argued: (1) directly after each party’s nominee has become clear; (2) after the party conventions this August; (3) following a debate. At these moments, voters aren’t just reacting to daily news, but rather are actually reevaluating their position based on the new information.

Jeanne Cummings, Bloomberg News political reporter and deputy government editor, doesn’t put much stock in national polls either. Discussing the Washington Post-ABC News poll with Chuck Todd on The Daily Rundown, she called it “not particularly relevant.”

“The White House expected a tight race, we have a tight race. Most re-elections are, especially with the economy the way it is,” she said. “National polls are interesting, but they’re not particularly relevant. Those eight [swing] states out there – that’s where everything matters and those states are also tight. Obama at the moment has a bit of advantage. Romney has a lot of work to do.”


Mitt Romney and Barack Obama

Parsing political polls: Are national numbers relevant?