If there is one thing I have learned from following the race for the Democratic nomination for President as closely as I have is that polls are, for the most part, worthless. Certainly we learned that in New Hampshire, and really in every case since. And there is no better evidence of that then what we have seen from both the Gallup and Rasmussen "Tracking Polls" which are taken daily and try to give people a sense of the race and how voter preferences react to news events. Certainly with the controversy over Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's speech on race Tuesday, and Governor Bill Richardson's endorsement Friday, there has been a lot for voters to digest. So how have they reacted? Well, that all depends on which pollster you put your faith in, Rasmussen or Gallup. Because the polls show the race moving in two opposite directions (one in Clinton's favor, one in Obama's) and it's not clear which to believe.
First, some background. Tracking polls are polls that are taken over a period of days. The sample size on each individual day is small, but when combined with previous days sample, it allows for a view of the race over time. As Rasmussen explains:
Daily tracking results are collected via nightly telephone surveys and reported on a four-day rolling average basis. The general election sample is currently based upon interviews with 1,600 Likely Voters. The margin of sampling error is +/- 3 percentage points with a 95% level of confidence.
So how did the Wright story and Obama's response play in these polls? Not well, initially, in both polls. According to Rasmussen, before the Wright story hit, Obama led Clinton by 8 points, 50-42, on March 14. The next day though, as the Wright controversy hit full tilt, Obama's lead collapsed, and he led Clinton by a statistically insignificant one-point margin, 46-45 on March 15. Now remember, the Tracking Polls weight four days of polling, so for Obama to fall that dramatically in one day's results showed how much ground he really lost, and how quickly, to Senator Clinton. In the Rasmussen poll, though, Obama never fell behind Clinton. He rebounded to a 3-point edge on March 16, and a 5 point advantage on March 19 (47-42), the day after his speech on race.
Gallup, on the other hand, showed a much steeper decline for Obama. Despite leading Clinton 50-44 before the Wright scandal, Obama, unlike with Rasmussen, quickly fell below Clinton. On March 16, Clinton moved ahead of Obama, 47-45. And two days later, on March 19, before Gallup had factored in Obama's Tuesday speech on race in America, Clinton her largest lead in weeks, a 49-42 advantage. So, while Rasmussen showed Obama recovering, and building his lead back to 5 points over Senator Clinton, Gallup had Obama bleeding heavily, moving from a six-point edge before Wright to a seven-point deficit after.
Given how wildly different these polls were, it probably is no surprise that since Obama's speech, the two polls continue to wildly differ on how Americans have responded. Rasmussen, which showed Obama maintain strength after the initial Wright flurry, has shown a new fall for Obama since his well-received (at least in the media) speech on Tuesday. Despite leading Clinton by 3 points (46-43) two days ago, and one-point yesterday, today's newest poll shows Clinton leading 46-44, her first lead since March 9. Gallup, on the other hand, has shown an incredible Obama resurgence since his speech. Trailing 49-42 just four days ago, today, Gallup reports Obama has re-taken the lead, and has a three-point advantage over Senator Clinton, 48-45, regaining almost all of the support he lost in the initial wake of the Wright controversy.
The differences between the polls are striking, and they show the foolishness of radio hosts, television hosts, and even the campaigns who treat these polls like the gospel. I love Joe Scarborough and his Morning Joe show on MSNBC, but he continually talked this week about Obama's collapse in the Gallup Tracking Poll. And I kept thinking "But he's still up in Rasmussen's Daily Tracking Poll." And now that Obama's fallen off by Rasmussen's tally, but fully recovered by Gallup's, I don't know what to think. Which probably tells me that I, and everyone else, shouldn't think much about these polls.