Your last-minute guide to deciphering election polls

    With the election less than a week away, much attention has been turned to the complex world of election polls. There are more polling companies than there are presidential candidates, and as such, they paint very different pictures of the upcoming election. Before you get lost in a wave of jargon and bias, here are a few facts to help you navigate the stormy seas of late-season polls:

    Terms to look for:

    Sample: When you see obscure figures like "1500 LV" in your poll of choice, don't get confused or alarmed. Any credible polling source will tell you its sample size, and sources are obliged to tell you what kinds of people are providing their survey data. The number you see is the amount of people polled, and the acronym refers to the kinds of people surveyed. The two common examples are LV, which stands for likely voters (those who plan on registering and going to vote on Election Day), and RV, meaning those who are already registered voters. The results of these two samples often differ, so make sure that you check who was polled before you read too much into the results.

    MoE: Another common acronym polling sources like to throw out is MoE. This stands for Margin of Error, and accounts for any errors the poll might have made. For example, if a major polling outlet accidentally surveyed a disproportionate amount of rural Americans in their research, the percentage indicating Repulican support might be slightly higher than expected. To account for such mistakes, they put in a margin of error. This percentage could hypothetically be added or subtracted from either candidate's percentage. If a poll showed Romney at 47 percent and Obama at 45 percent with a MoE of 3 percent, then the actual result could be as extreme as 50-42 in favor of Romney, or even 48-44 in favor of Obama. The most credible and accurate polls tend to have a large sample size with the smallest possible margin of error.

    Nationally recognized polls:

    Gallup: As the oldest continuous polling outlet in the United States, the Gallup poll is typically the most respected and most referenced poll during election season. It is known for generally accurate presidential election predictions, although it's responsible for the "Dewey Defeats Truman" fiasco in 1948. In recent years, it has been accused of not proportionately surveying minorities, leading to slightly negative results for President Obama. Nonetheless, the Gallup poll usually will give you what you're looking for in a readily digestible format. 

    Rasmussen: Only in existence since 2003, Rasmussen Reports have become a widely-known force in predicting elections. Although it predicted the 2004 presidential and 2010 congressional elections with startling accuracy, Rasmussen is generally considered to have a Republican bias. For example, a poll earlier in the summer put Romney ahead by 1 percent while most other polls had Obama ahead by at least 4 percent. That being said, the Rasmussen Reports are often a very good barometer of the electoral atmosphere, although taking the results with a grain of salt is recommended.

    Real Clear Politics: When poring over the vast multitude of polls with their own unique biases, it can get a bit daunting. Fortunately, if none of the independent surveys win over your confidence, Real Clear Politics is here to save the day. Its website features the RCP Average, an aggregation of all the major polls, including Gallup and Rasmussen. Similar to the MetaCritic feature on IMDB, the RCP Average creates a consensus among top professionals in the field to create the closest thing to an objective account of the electoral scope. The RCP Average currently has Romney with a slim 0.9 percent advantage over President Obama, so a close election is definitely expected. One downside of this format is that it's unable to give you a sample size or margin of error.

    As you prepare to make your final choice on Tuesday, check out Real Clear Politics first to get a general idea of what the polls indicate. Then, take a look at more specific sources like Gallup or Rasmussen to make sure you're comfortable with their sample size and margin of error. Armed with this knowledge, you'll be ready for this exciting last week of the campaign. According to the RCP average, Mitt Romney has turned a 5 percent deficit into a 1 percent lead in just the past month. Although the polls can't tell us exactly what's going to happen, one thing is clear: Expect a nailbiter on election day. 


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