Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Pollster's apprentice

Nasser grew up in Egypt. He immigrated to the U.S. in his late 20s after studying political science in Egypt. He returned to school in the US and earned a master’s degree in political polling. He graduated at the top of his class and was quickly recruited by Peter Griffin one of the well known pollsters in the U.S. He soon became Griffin’s apprentice, and was put in charge of the polling for the presidential campaign of 2012. His first poll of 3000 likely voters showed the Republican candidate- Mitt Romney trailing the Democratic candidate- president Obama 40% to 60%. The expenses for the survey were about $30,000. These surveys typically cost about $12 per response, but Nasser managed to stay under $30,000.  Griffin wrote a check to Nasser for $35,000. He said with a smile “Keep the change. And, by the way, if you put those talents of yours into saving money on these surveys you can still keep the difference.”
Soon after that poll was published, the New York Times published an interview with one of the White House aides who said that Obama missed his oldest daughter’s 10th birthday because he was called in to deal with a terrorist threat. Griffin asked Nasser to do a follow up poll to see the impact of that story.
Nasser: You really think that this story would make some people decide that he should not be president?
Griffin: My dear apprentice you don’t know how fickle the American electorate is.  You will soon find out. Go ahead and do a new survey of another 3000 voters. Here’s your $35,000 check.
N: I’ll do even better.  I’ll find out precisely if any voters have changed their mind. I still have the list of the 3000 people we polled. I’ll call each one and find out if any of them changed their mind.
G: No, no, no. You can’t do that. You need a fresh sample of 3000 new people.
N: Why?
G: Because people who already talked to you might be shy or ashamed of admitting that they changed their mind.
N: So people might vote for a different president just because they feel silly about changing their vote after talking to me?! And, the result is that in order to find out if someone changed his mind it is essential that we don’t ask him again if he changed his mind?
G: Exactly!
The apprentice thought to himself “This is ridiculous.” Then he started thinking “If I can only find a sample of voters who are not shy about telling me what they are thinking at the moment.  Perhaps I will build a close personal relationship with each one that whenever they would change their mind they would be totally honest with me, then I would use that same sample indefinitely.  “But, how can I have a close personal relationship with 3000 people?”
It then occurred to him that if the sample was perfectly representative of the electorate, he would not need 3000 voters but perhaps only 100 voters.
So the apprentice started on the most daring polling project in US political history. He carefully selected, recruited, and interviewed voters. He eventually put together what he called a super sample of 100 voters. He believed that their poll results would be as accurate as any other pollster’s.
He used his super sample for the next poll and came ahead of every other pollster’s accuracy.  He then used the same sample over and over and always came out ahead in accuracy. This went on for months. Griffin would commission a poll. Nasser would pocket the $35,000 and use his super sample. Griffin was invited to every political TV and radio show. He was so pleased with Nasser and asked him what his secret was.
 Nasser decided to come clean and told Griffin the whole story. Griffin was amazed. He wanted to know more about the super sample.
G: So, you are telling me that you only had to make 100 phone calls and you were done?
N: Actually I didn’t even need to call the whole 100. There were 35 people who told me that they would always vote Republican and another 35 who would always vote Democrat no matter what. They had strong political views or religious beliefs like being Pro-Life or social justice (whatever that is). I grew to respect these people even the ones whose beliefs are opposite to my beliefs. But, I didn’t need to call them for surveys. There was another 5% who said they don’t always vote Republican but they will this year because of many reasons, and that nothing in the news between now and the election would change that. There was another similar 5% on the Democrat side. So, I was down to 20 people. I used to call them the independents or the undecided.
G: So you only called 20 people and came up with results as accurate as polling 3000 people?!
N: Not even 20! There were 5 people that told me that they are voting Republican and seemed to never change their mind. I asked them if there is anything that could happen between now and the election that would make them change their mind. They said “Yes, but it has to be something major like a war or treason or something like that.” I called them when that story about the Marine came out and I asked if that was major enough for any of them. They all said “No, when something serious enough happens that would make us change our mind you will be able to tell. Call us then”.  I haven’t had to call them all year. There were 5 similar people on the Democrat side.
G: That leaves only 10 people. Tell me about them.
N: Yes I only had 10 people to call every week. Four of them would vote for whoever had the better news headlines in that week.  There are 3 people who would vote for whichever name came up more in the news during that week. And then there were 3 people who voted for whoever was ahead in the previous poll! I shouldn’t really need to call those last 3, but, like the other 7, their vote depended on what part of which news they caught the previous week.
G: I know you have a good long term relationship with these 10 people that they confide in you. But these people don’t seem so smart! Are they at all concerned about how dumb they sound?
N: Not really. There are 2 reasons for that, the polls and the political media. First,  the most intelligent and powerful people in the country, perhaps the world  want to know which way they voters  are leaning, no matter how dumb or stupid they are. Second, these 10 people are frequently called to be on TV shows for interviews and live coverage of debates. They are very popular right now. At the end of each one of those shows they ask them are you now decided?  The say No! Duh! If they ever say yes they will not be invited next time.
G: This is depressing. You are telling me that the presidential election is a quest for the idiots’ votes?
N: It is depressing. I made some hints to them that perhaps they don’t need to vote, but they believe it’s their civic duty. What is more dangerous is that it is becoming more and more important for a party to have poll results in their favor. They would do anything to manipulate the results so they would get momentum with those last 3%. They would also use any poll in their favor to stifle debate. I was watching one of those debates at the time when Obama was ahead. Every time Romney would bring up a good point or a view that he has which is popular with a majority of people, Obama would respond “The American people have told us that they don’t care about these issues. What they really care about is…”
Next time Griffin was on TV, he was asked how do you explain these big drops in Obama’s numbers last week despite the improving economy which generally favors the incumbent? All the other pollsters and experts pontificated about the possible explanation. The host turned to Griffin, “You have been more accurate than all the other pollsters. What do you think is driving these numbers?”  Like every other time Griffin gave very detailed reasons for the changes. But, this time there was something different. There was a certain sparkle in his eye. Nasser, watching the TV, was probably the only person who could see that sparkle. He knew exactly what Griffin was thinking. He was sending him a telepathic message across the air waves. The message said “You are asking me why these people changed their minds? How the heck could anybody know? These people don’t follow reason. They are idiots”

No comments:

Post a Comment