How to parse out poll data

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Polls have shown a consistent lead for George W. Bush of 5 to 6 points since the Republican Convention. However, this actually translates into a bigger electoral lead because John Kerry’s big lead in a couple of populous states like California and New York distorts the data and makes it appear he is doing better nationally than he actually is.

To understand what is going on, it is essential to look at state-level data. After all, it is the individual states, through the Electoral College, that ultimately choose the president.

In years past, it was very hard to get state-level poll data. Few state polls were taken, and their results were mostly available only to political professionals. But now there are good state-level polls in almost every state that can provide a much more accurate electoral vote count than can be inferred from national polls.

Fortunately, several Web sites compile national and state-level polls daily and even draw electoral vote maps that are revised whenever new data are available.

As I have mentioned in previous columns, one of my favorites is a site called RealClearPolitics.com. It is really a one-stop shopping site for all the latest poll data — national and state-level. This Web site helpfully calculates an average of the latest national polls. In effect, they create a poll sample much larger than any single poll, which reduces both volatility and error.

Because national polls tend to be conducted by media organizations, they seldom report any polls other than their own. As a result, every media organization asks the same exact questions as other polls that appeared the day before. This adds nothing to our knowledge unless we read only one paper.

Thus, we have poll after poll after poll telling us the president’s job approval, but very few polls asking in-depth questions about important policy questions. On those rare occasions when such questions are asked, they tend to be so poorly worded one can draw no meaningful conclusions from them.

Fortunately, because of the Internet, anyone with a computer can easily access national polls, read the questions for themselves and draw his own conclusions. For this, I rely on PollingReport.com, a free site with every recent national poll on any subject polled. It is extraordinarily useful.

Unfortunately, PollingReport charges for access to state polls. But there are a number of sites that now have state-level data for major political races. RealClearPolitics is one. Others are Tripias.com and Electoral-vote.com. Both will automatically draw electoral vote maps of the United States so one can easily see how the presidential race is breaking out geographically. Similar data are also available on some newspaper Web sites, such as that of the Los Angeles Times.

Poll data aren’t the only useful electoral information now available on the Internet. There also are several sites with in-depth information about financial contributions to major candidates. The best known is OpenSecrets.org, which is operated by the Center for Responsive Politics. It is a simple matter to look up anyone’s name and find out to whom they made campaign contributions in this or recent election cycles.

WhiteHouseforSale.org is another useful Web site for campaign contributions. One can easily find all the biggest contributors to George Bush or John Kerry — a useful way to find the names of future Cabinet secretaries and such. Fund-race.org takes the data another step and organizes political contribution data geographically so one can find out to which candidates one’s own neighbors contribute. Maps are provided for a few big cities so one can see which neighborhoods tilt toward Mr. Bush and which toward Mr. Kerry.

With these kinds of resources, it is now possible for anyone to have almost as much information as the people running the Bush or Kerry campaigns. By using this information, it is even possible to make money. There are several sites where real money can be bet on the election.

The oldest is the Iowa Electronic Market at the University of Iowa. It was originally set up to teach students about futures markets, but it is now used by political professionals to see what markets say about their candidates. Lately, they have shown Mr. Bush with a 2-to-1 lead over Mr. Kerry.

Two other sites where one can also bet on the presidential election are TradeSports.com and Intrade.com. They also show Mr. Bush with a comfortable lead as this is written.

In sum, you, too, can be a political professional, make prognostications and even make money on politics if you want to. The tools are all there on the Internet.

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