Posts filed under Polls (99)

September 19, 2014

Not how polling works

The Herald interactive for election results looks really impressive. The headline infographic for the latest poll, not so much. The graph is designed to display changes between two polls, for which the margin of error is 1.4 times higher than in a single poll: the margin of error for National goes beyond the edge of the graph.

election-diff

 

The lead for the story is worse

The Kim Dotcom-inspired event in Auckland’s Town Hall that was supposed to end John Key’s career gave the National Party an immediate bounce in support this week, according to polling for the last Herald DigiPoll survey.

Since both the Dotcom and Greenwald/Snowden Moments of Truth happened in the middle of polling, they’ve split the results into before/after Tuesday.  That is, rather than showing an average of polls, or even a single poll, or even a change from a single poll, they are headlining the change between the first and second halves of a single poll!

The observed “bounce” was 1.3%. The quoted margin of error at the bottom of the story is 3.5%, from a poll of 775 people. The actual margin of error for a change between the first and second halves of the poll is about 7%.

Only in the Internet Party’s wildest dreams could this split-half comparison have told us anything reliable. It would need the statistical equivalent of the CSI magic video-zoom enhance button to work.

 

September 18, 2014

Interactive election results map

The Herald has an interactive election-results map, which will show results for each polling place as they come in, together with demographic information about each electorate.  At the moment it’s showing the 2011 election data, and the displays are still being refined — but the Herald has started promoting it, so I figure it’s safe for me to link as well.

Mashblock is also developing an election site. At the moment they have enrolment data by age. Half the people under 35 in Auckland Central seem to be unenrolled,which is a bit scary. Presumably some of them are students enrolled at home, and some haven’t been in NZ long enough to enrol, but still.

Some non-citizens probably don’t know that they are eligible — I almost missed out last time. So, if you know someone who is a permanent resident and has lived in New Zealand for a year, you might just ask if they know about the eligibility rules. Tomorrow is the last day.

September 8, 2014

Poll meta-analyses in NZ

As we point out from time to time, single polls aren’t very accurate and you need sensible averaging.

There are at least three sets of averages for NZ:

1. Peter Green’s analyses, which get published at DimPost (larger parties, smaller parties). The full code is here.

2. Pundit’s poll of polls. They have a reasonably detailed description of their approach and it follows what Nate Silver did for the US elections.

3. Curiablog’s time and size weighted average. Methodology described here

The implementors of these cover a reasonable spectrum of NZ political affiliation. The results agree fairly closely except for one issue: Peter Green adds a correction to make the predictions go through the 2011 election results, which no-one else does.

According to Gavin White, there is a historical tendency for National to do a bit worse and NZ First to do a bit better in the election than in the polls, so you’d want to correct for this, but you could also argue that the effect was stronger than usual at the last election so this might overcorrect.

In addition to any actual changes in preferences over the next couple of weeks, there are three polling issues we don’t have a good handle on:

  • Internet Mana is new, and you could make a plausible case that their supporters might be harder for the  pollers to get a good grip on (note: age and ethnicity aren’t enough here, the pollers do take account of those).
  • There seems to have been a big increase in ‘undecided‘ responders to the polls, apparently from former Labour voters. To the extent that this is new, no-one really knows what they will do on the day.
  • Polling for electorates is harder, especially when strategic voting is important, as in Epsom.

 

[Update: thanks to Bevan Weir in comments, there's also a Radio NZ average. It's a simple unweighted average with no smoothing, which isn't ideal for estimation but has the virtue of simplicity]

August 28, 2014

Bogus polls

This is a good illustration of why they’re meaningless…

Bogus polls

August 22, 2014

Margin of error for minor parties

The 3% ‘margin of error’ usually quoted for poll is actually the ‘maximum margin of error’, and is an overestimate for minor parties. On the other hand, it also assumes simple random sampling and so tends to be an underestimate for major parties.

In case anyone is interested, I have done the calculations for a range of percentages (code here), both under simple random sampling and under one assumption about real sampling.

 

Lower and upper ‘margin of error’ limits for a sample of size 1000 and the observed percentage, under the usual assumptions of independent sampling

Percentage lower upper
1 0.5 1.8
2 1.2 3.1
3 2.0 4.3
4 2.9 5.4
5 3.7 6.5
6 4.6 7.7
7 5.5 8.8
8 6.4 9.9
9 7.3 10.9
10 8.2 12.0
15 12.8 17.4
20 17.6 22.6
30 27.2 32.9
50 46.9 53.1

 

Lower and upper ‘margin of error’ limits for a sample of size 1000 and the observed percentage, assuming that complications in sampling inflate the variance by a factor of 2, which empirically is about right for National.

Percentage lower upper
1 0.3 2.3
2 1.0 3.6
3 1.7 4.9
4 2.5 6.1
5 3.3 7.3
6 4.1 8.5
7 4.9 9.6
8 5.8 10.7
9 6.6 11.9
10 7.5 13.0
15 12.0 18.4
20 16.6 23.8
30 26.0 34.2
50 45.5 54.5
August 7, 2014

Non-bogus non-random polling

As you know, one of the public services StatsChat provides is whingeing about bogus polls in the media, at least when they are used to anchor stories rather than just being decorative widgets on the webpage. This attitude doesn’t (or doesn’t necessarily) apply to polls that make no effort to collect a non-random sample but do make serious efforts to reduce bias by modelling the data. Personally, I think it would be better to apply these modelling techniques on top of standard sampling approaches, but that might not be feasible. You can’t do everything.

I’ve been prompted to write this by seeing Andrew Gelman and David Rothschild’s reasonable and measured response (and also Andrew’s later reasonable and less measured response) to a statement from the American Association for Public Opinion Research.  The AAPOR said

This week, the New York Times and CBS News published a story using, in part, information from a non-probability, opt-in survey sparking concern among many in the polling community. In general, these methods have little grounding in theory and the results can vary widely based on the particular method used. While little information about the methodology accompanied the story, a high level overview of the methodology was posted subsequently on the polling vendor’s website. Unfortunately, due perhaps in part to the novelty of the approach used, many of the details required to honestly assess the methodology remain undisclosed.

As the responses make clear, the accusation about transparency of methods is unfounded. The accusation about theoretical grounding is the pot calling the kettle black.  Standard survey sampling theory is one of my areas of research. I’m currently writing the second edition of a textbook on it. I know about its grounding in theory.

The classical theory applies to most of my applied sampling work, which tends to involve sampling specimen tubes from freezers. The theoretical grounding does not apply when there is massive non-response, as in all political polling. It is an empirical observation based on election results that carefully-done quota samples and reweighted probability samples of telephones give pretty good estimates of public opinion. There is no mathematical guarantee.

Since classical approaches to opinion polling work despite massive non-response, it’s reasonable to expect that modelling-based approaches to non-probability data will also work, and reasonable to hope that they might even work better (given sufficient data and careful modelling). Whether they do work better is an empirical question, but these model-based approaches aren’t a flashy new fad. Rod Little, who pioneered the methods AAPOR is objecting to, did so nearly twenty years before his stint as Chief Scientist at the US Census Bureau, an institution not known for its obsession with the latest fashions.

In some settings modelling may not be feasible because of a lack of population data. In a few settings non-response is not a problem. Neither of those applies in US political polling. It’s disturbing when the president of one of the largest opinion-polling organisations argues that model-based approaches should not be referenced in the media, and that’s even before considering some of the disparaging language being used.

“Don’t try this at home” might have been a reasonable warning to pollers without access to someone like Andrew Gelman. “Don’t try this in the New York Times” wasn’t.

July 22, 2014

Lack of correlation does not imply causation

From the Herald

Labour’s support among men has fallen to just 23.9 per cent in the latest Herald-DigiPoll survey and leader David Cunliffe concedes it may have something to do with his “sorry for being a man” speech to a domestic violence symposium.

Presumably Mr Cunliffe did indeed concede it might have something to do with his statement; and there’s no way to actually rule that out as a contributing factor. However

Broken down into gender support, women’s support for Labour fell from 33.4 per cent last month to 29.1 per cent; and men’s support fell from 27.6 per cent last month to 23.9 per cent.

That is, women’s support for Labour fell by 4.2 percentage points (give or take about 4.2) and men’s by 3.7 percentage points (give or take about 4.2). This can’t really be considered evidence for a gender-specific Labour backlash. Correlations need not be causal, but here there isn’t even a correlation.

July 2, 2014

What’s the actual margin of error?

The official maximum margin of error for an election poll with a simple random sample of 1000 people is 3.099%. Real life is more complicated.

In reality, not everyone is willing to talk to the nice researchers, so they either have to keep going until they get a representative-looking number of people in each group they are interested in, or take what they can get and reweight the data — if young people are under-represented, give each one more weight. Also, they can only get a simple random sample of telephones, so there are more complications in handling varying household sizes. And even once they have 1000 people, some of them will say “Dunno” or “The Conservatives? That’s the one with that nice Mr Key, isn’t it?”

After all this has shaken out it’s amazing the polls do as well as they do, and it would be unrealistic to hope that the pure mathematical elegance of the maximum margin of error held up exactly.  Survey statisticians use the term “design effect” to describe how inefficient a sampling method is compared to ideal simple random sampling. If you have a design effect of 2, your sample of 1000 people is as good as an ideal simple random sample of 500 people.

We’d like to know the design effect for individual election polls, but it’s hard. There isn’t any mathematical formula for design effects under quota sampling, and while there is a mathematical estimate for design effects after reweighting it isn’t actually all that accurate.  What we can do, thanks to Peter Green’s averaging code, is estimate the average design effect across multiple polls, by seeing how much the poll results really vary around the smooth trend. [Update: this is Wikipedia's graph, but I used Peter's code]

NZ_opinion_polls_2011-2014-majorparties

I did this for National because it’s easiest, and because their margin of error should be close to the maximum margin of error (since their vote is fairly close to 50%). The standard deviation of the residuals from the smooth trend curve is 2.1%, compared to 1.6% for a simple random sample of 1000 people. That would be a design effect of (2.1/1.6)2, or 1.8.  Based on the Fairfax/Ipsos numbers, about half of that could be due to dropping the undecided voters.

In principle, I could have overestimated the design effect this way because sharp changes in party preference would look like unusually large random errors. That’s not a big issue here: if you re-estimate using a standard deviation estimator that’s resistant to big errors (the median absolute deviation) you get a slightly larger design effect estimate.  There may be sharp changes, but there aren’t all that many of them, so they don’t have a big impact.

If the perfect mathematical maximum-margin-of-error is about 3.1%, the added real-world variability turns that into about 4.2%, which isn’t that bad. This doesn’t take bias into account — if something strange is happening with undecided voters, the impact could be a lot bigger than sampling error.

 

June 23, 2014

Undecided?

My attention was drawn on Twitter to this post at The Political Scientist arguing that the election poll reporting is misleading because they don’t report the results for the relatively popular “Undecided” party.  The post is making a good point, but there are two things I want to comment on. Actually, three things. The zeroth thing is that the post contains the numbers, but only as screenshots, not as anything useful.

The first point is that the post uses correlation coefficients to do everything, and these really aren’t fit for purpose. The value of correlation coefficients is that they summarise the (linear part of the) relationship between two variables in a way that doesn’t involve the units of measurement or the direction of effect (if any). Those are bugs, not features, in this analysis. The question is how the other party preferences have changed with changes in the ‘Undecided’ preference — how many extra respondents picked Labour, say, for each extra respondent who gave a preference. That sort of question is answered  (to a straight-line approximation) by regression coefficients, not correlation coefficients.

When I do a set of linear regressions, I estimate that changes in the Undecided vote over the past couple of years have split approximately  70:20:3.5:6.5 between Labour:National:Greens:NZFirst.  That confirms the general conclusion in the post: most of the change in Undecided seems to have come from  Labour. You can do the regressions the other way around and ask where (net) voters leaving Labour have gone, and find that they overwhelmingly seem to have gone to Undecided.

What can we conclude from this? The conclusion is pretty limited because of the small number of polls (9) and the fact that we don’t actually have data on switching for any individuals. You could fit the data just as well by saying that Labour voters have switched to National and National voters have switched to Undecided by the same amount — this produces the same counts, but has different political implications. Since the trends have basically been a straight line over this period it’s fairly easy to get alternative explanations — if there had been more polls and more up-and-down variation the alternative explanations would be more strained.

The other limitation in conclusions is illustrated by the conclusion of the post

There’s a very clear story in these two correlations: Put simply, as the decided vote goes up so does the reported percentage vote for the Labour Party.

Conversely, as the decided vote goes up, the reported percentage vote for the National party tends to go down.

The closer the election draws the more likely it is that people will make a decision.

But then there’s one more step – getting people to put that decision into action and actually vote.

We simply don’t have data on what happens when the decided vote goes up — it has been going down over this period — so that can’t be the story. Even if we did have data on the decided vote going up, and even if we stipulated that people are more likely to come to a decision near the election, we still wouldn’t have a clear story. If it’s true that people tend to come to a decision near the election, this means the reason for changes in the undecided vote will be different near an election than far from an election. If the reasons for the changes are different, we can’t have much faith that the relationships between the changes will stay the same.

The data provide weak evidence that Labour has lost support to ‘Undecided’ rather than to National over the past couple of years, which should be encouraging to them. In the current form, the data don’t really provide any evidence for extrapolation to the election.

 

[here's the re-typed count of preferences data, rounded to the nearest integer]

June 17, 2014

Margins of error

From the Herald

The results for the Mana Party, Internet Party and Internet-Mana Party totalled 1.4 per cent in the survey – a modest start for the newly launched party which was the centre of attention in the lead-up to the polling period.

That’s probably 9 respondents. A 95% interval around the support for Internet–Mana goes from 0.6% to 2.4%, so we can’t really tell much about the expected number of seats.

Also notable

Although the deal was criticised by many commentators and rival political parties, 39 per cent of those polled said the Internet-Mana arrangement was a legitimate use of MMP while 43 per cent said it was an unprincipled rort.

I wonder what other options respondents were given besides “unprincipled rort” and “legitimate use of MMP”.