The 105 polls released in Senate and gubernatorial races by Rasmussen Reports and its subsidiary, Pulse Opinion Research, missed the final margin between the candidates by 5.8 points, a considerably higher figure than that achieved by most other pollsters. Some 13 of its polls missed by 10 or more points, including one in the Hawaii Senate race that missed the final margin between the candidates by 40 points, the largest error ever recorded in a general election in FiveThirtyEight’s database, which includes all polls conducted since 1998.
Moreover, Rasmussen’s polls were quite biased, overestimating the standing of the Republican candidate by almost 4 points on average. In just 12 cases, Rasmussen’s polls overestimated the margin for the Democrat by 3 or more points. But it did so for the Republican candidate in 55 cases — that is, in more than half of the polls that it issued.
If one focused solely on the final poll issued by Rasmussen Reports or Pulse Opinion Research in each state — rather than including all polls within the three-week interval — it would not have made much difference. Their average error would be 5.7 points rather than 5.8, and their average bias 3.8 points rather than 3.9.
As many of you know, I was very pro-Rasmussen during the 2008 election because they produced reliable daily results, but we can’t ignore the analysis. Somewhere along the way something went wrong.
How did the poll get steered into the ditch?
Rasmussen, for instance, generally conducts all of its interviews during a single, 4-hour window; speaks with the first person it reaches on the phone rather than using a random selection process; does not call cellphones; does not call back respondents whom it misses initially; and uses a computer script rather than live interviewers to conduct its surveys. These are cost-saving measures which contribute to very low response rates and may lead to biased samples.
Rasmussen also weights their surveys based on preordained assumptions about the party identification of voters in each state, a relatively unusual practice that many polling firms consider dubious since party identification (unlike characteristics like age and gender) is often quite fluid.
Also, it wasn’t like the writing wasn’t on the wall early on…
The discrepancies between Rasmussen Reports polls and those issued by other companies were apparent from virtually the first day that Barack Obama took office. Rasmussen showed Barack Obama’s disapproval rating at 36 percent, for instance, just a week after his inauguration, at a point when no other pollster had that figure higher than 20 percent.