Does NYT/CBS Poll Mean Shenanigans for the Sunshine State?

In what could be a portent of things to come, the media is already playing games with numbers in Florida.  As has been widely reported, a new New York Times/CBS News/Democratic National Committee poll has Barack Obama pulling away from Mitt Romney in three battleground states.

(Well, okay, there's no proof that the DNC actually paid for the poll, but, given the rather questionable results, it might as well have.  Although it's kind of redundant to list the DNC anyway, given the two sponsoring media organizations.)

The survey purports to show that Obama has reached the suddenly magical number of 50% in Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania.  The authors of the report all but fail to admit that they accomplish this by weighting the polling samples toward Democrats -- and heavily weight them, at least in the case of Florida.

Buried in the Quinnipiac College report on the poll is the actual number of people it queried in telephone surveys.  Of the 1,177 people polled in Florida, the numbers by party affiliation break down like this:

Republican - 359 or 30.5%

Democrat - 373 or 31.6%

Independent - 393 or 33.4%

Other/Don't know/etc. - 52 or 4.4%

These are seemingly realistic numbers, representative of what a random sampling might produce.

However, once the pollsters "weighted" the numbers, this is what they came up with use:

Republican - 27%

Democrat - 36%

Independent - 32%

Other/Don't know/etc. - 5%

Republicans' responses were decreased and Democrats' responses were increased to give Democrats a 9% overall margin.  Independents were also decreased slightly.

How did this affect the overall result?

This correspondent's reading of the CBS/NYT survey produced no useful breakdown of Republicans' and Democrats' voting preferences for president.  It could be assumed that the vast majority of each -- 90% or more -- would vote for their party's nominee.  However, you know what they say about assuming.

Instead, we went to the last credible poll of Florida voters, conducted by Democrat-leaning Public Policy Polling.  The survey of 871 likely voters, conducted July 26-29, appears to be unweighted and gave Obama a 1% overall lead.  It found that 84% of Florida Democrats planned to vote for Obama and 83% of Republicans plan to vote for Romney.  Significantly, the PPP survey found that only 40% of independents plan to vote for Obama, and 47% for Romney.

Applying these numbers to the unweighted raw numbers from the NYT/CBS poll produces a startling result.  Before the heavy thumb of weighting was applied, Obama would be well below the 50% figure.  In fact, Mitt Romney might actually have a slight lead.

Following is the PPP breakdown by party and presidential preference for Florida:

                        Base           Democrat   Republican Independent/Other

Barack Obama    48%           84%           14%           40%

Mitt Romney       47%           12%           83%           47%

Undecided          5%             4%             3%             13%

Multiply the actual number of respondents -- and not the weighted percentages -- in the NYT/CBS by these percentages, and you get the following results.

44.812% for Romney.

44.246% for Obama.

It is through the magic of weighting ("Ignore that man behind the curtain!") that the pollsters were able to bump Obama into the lead in Florida, and above 50%.

As Richard Baehr has pointed out elsewhere on AT, the weighting is so skewed in this poll that, when respondents were asked whom they voted for in 2008, the numbers don't come close to actual results.  Its weighted results would have given Obama a 53-40 margin in 2008, as compared to the real 50.9-to-48.4 difference.

The numbers are most dramatic for Florida, but weighting also skewed the NYT/CBS poll in Ohio and Pennsylvania, as the following demonstrates.

                                   Ohio real numbers:        Weighted percentages used in the poll:

Republican respondents      29%                        27%

Democrat respondents       33%                         35%

Independent respondents   33%                         32%

                               Pennsylvania real numbers                 Weighted

Republican respondents    33.4%                                        32%

Democrat respondents     34.9%                                         38%

Independent respondents 27.5%                                        26%

Once again, the weighting not only distorts what the survey means for voter preference this fall, but also throws completely out of whack whom respondents said they voted for last time.  If you believe this poll's numbers, Obama won a 15-point (53-to-38) victory in Ohio in 2008, when the actual margin was 50.9 to 48.4.  The NYT/CBS poll was, though, more reflective of the actual '08 results in Pennsylvania.

Since the weighting so thoroughly skewed not just what the survey purports to predict for the future, but what actually happened in the past, its actual results are all but irrelevant.  The real meaning of the poll is that the media has now discarded the attempt it usually tries to portray of itself -- at least until the fall campaign has begun in earnest -- as fair and is now fully engaged on behalf of the candidate it got elected last go-round.

And the people in the media believe that, once again this year, the difference could come down to Florida.

Warren Zevon once sang, "Send lawyers, guns, and money."  Two of the three may be needed in the Sunshine State again.

William Tate is an award-winning journalist and author.