Should We Believe the Presidential Polls?

Published October 30, 2008


This is a rush transcript from "On the Record ," October 29, 2008. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN FOX NEWS HOST: Can you believe the polls? Right now Senator McCain is behind in most national polls. But which polls are reliable, and how do we know and what percentage of polls are just wrong?

Joining us live is Michael Barone, senior writer for "U.S. News and World Report." Michael, I don't get this poll business. If it's so scientific and so right, how come they are so different from each other?

MICHAEL BARONE, SENIOR WRITER, "U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT": Well, political polling is an imperfect business, Greta.

If you go to the polling purists, the academics, they'll tell you that in order to get a random sample you have to go to a certain designated household and get a certain designated individual in that household. And you have to go after her or him for months and months until they finally submit to an interview.

Of course political pollsters can't do that, and people conducting tracking polls on an overnight basis can't do that. So these samples are imperfect.

Polling theory tells us even with perfect sampling, one out of 20 polls will be wrong. That is the results will be outside the margin of error from what you get if you could question the whole population.

So we are looking at an imperfect process here.

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VAN SUSTEREN: It's almost as though it's some sort of game to keep people in the media busy so they don't go out and cause trouble and commit crimes, because all we do is pore over these and look at them every single day when they come in trying to predict. And then we go on and tell what we think they mean.

BARONE: One of the hard things to figure out, Greta, from this is what changes are significant and what is statistical noise?

I have noticed in the last couple of days, for example, that the Rasmussen tracking poll, the Gallup tracking poll has tended to get closer. John Zogby's poll for writers has showed McCain being behind from 10 points behind a few days ago to five points behind.

Now, Zogby's methods are rather controversial. And a lot of us view his results with some caution.

But there's some science that this may be tightening up and that John McCain may be making gains. But that could still be statistical noise. I want to see another day of those signs before I say it really means something.

VAN SUSTEREN: In order for me to give a lot of credence to polls, I need to know this--looking back at the primaries, the polls done with the primaries, did either candidate poll a particular direction, poll high from what he got or poll low from what he got?

BARONE: We saw a pretty clear pattern with Barack Obama, with just a couple exceptions, one of which was New Hampshire, where Barack Obama tended to get from the voters the same percentage that he got in the pre- election polls.

So if you were going into the Ohio contest on March 4, Barack Obama was running about had 44 percent, 45 percent. And he got about 45 percent of the votes from the voters in those polls. That was a pretty consistent pattern.

And there are some Democratic consultants, like (INAUDIBLE) in Michigan who wrote an article for "The Weekly Standard" along these lines, suggesting that he expects that Obama will perform that way in the general election.

Now, when you apply that to current numbers, with showing Obama 49.6 percent of the average in recent polls, that suggests a real close election, doesn't it, if that theory is right?

VAN SUSTEREN: Indeed it does. And, of course, we are all going to be watching.

Tuesday's our big day. Are you coming back soon? You're going to be part of this.

BARONE: I'll be part of it right there in New York with the decision desk. And we'll try to tell you what's happening with the real votes coming in.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. Thank you, Michael.

BARONE: Thanks, Greta.

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