Did Polling Only in English Distort Key Polls?

Leading outfits underestimated Obama's support in states like Florida, Colorado, and Nevada -- states with large proportions of Spanish speakers.


In the frenzied final days leading up to the election, Marcos Vilar manned a bilingual command center in central Florida, where he's been working to register voters and make sure they are engaged in Spanish as well as English. About 60 to 70 percent of about 100,000 newly registered Latino voters in Florida are Spanish-dominant, said Vilar, the national outreach director for Mi Familia Vota. Latinos make up 13 percent of Florida's voters, and a growing number of non-Cuban Spanish-speaking voters probably helped President Obama win the Sunshine State in a race that a Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News poll called a virtual tie.

But polls prognosticating Florida's vote had fluctuated curiously -- Nate Silver had Romney leading slightly in Florida, and Rasmussen pollsters had Romney leading by two points immediately before the election that appears poised to give the state to the president. ="http:>="http:>

Why the curious fluctuations? The answer could lie in different pollsters' decisions to conduct polling only in English, or to also include a more costly Spanish-language component. Some of the best-known national pollsters -- Gallup, Pew, and Quinnipiac -- routinely poll in Spanish as well as English, while other large polling outfits, such as the Washington Post/ABC News collaboration, poll in Spanish at the state level.

Giant robocallers Rasmussen and PPP do not appear to poll in Spanish, according to other pollsters who have studied their results. Rasmussen and PPP both did not respond to repeated requests for interviews on this topic or to discuss the question of Spanish-language polling. "We have asked [Rasmussen and Public Policy Polling] repeatedly if they polled in Spanish and they have never provided us with any data or an answer that suggests they do," said Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions, a political opinion-research firm. "Everything I have seen about both those polls are they are 100 percent in English."

Forecasters like Nate Silver and RealClearPolitics calibrate their own predictions from pollsters who do and don't poll in Spanish.

All of this could help explain the mixed polling picture in places like Florida, where Obama appears to have overperformed a number of different predictions. Similar gaps between certain polling outfits and the final outcome showed up in Nevada and Colorado, where Spanish-speaking voters were apparently overlooked in pre-election polling. Rasmussen pollsters showed Romney holding a narrow lead in Colorado,, and Obama up by two in Nevada. But Obama swept Nevada by six points, and Colorado by nearly five points.

The classic not-polling-in-Spanish morality tale first surfaced in a big way in Nevada, during Harry Reid's 2010 electoral smack down of Tea Partier Sharron Angle, who had been projected to win by pollsters who hadn't polled in Spanish. Clearly, not polling in Spanish seriously skews prognostications in heavily Latino swing states like Florida, Nevada, and Colorado. But it also creates misleading national polls in tight elections.

"In a very close presidential race [not polling in Spanish] matters a lot," said Simon Jackman, a political science professor at Stanford University, co-director of the Stanford Center for American Democracy, and a principal investigator of the American National Election Studies. "Not polling in Spanish in national polls could underestimate the Obama vote by one-half to one percentage point. This is a small number in an absolute sense, but very significant in a tight election."

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Terry Greene Sterling is an author, journalist, and writer-in-residence at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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