When you see polls, there'll often be very different numbers for "registered voters" vs. "likely voters."
Polls measuring likely voters usually favor Republicans, because Republicans are more likely to vote because they're usually better informed about the mechanics of voting -- when, where, how -- and less likely to have obstacles to prevent them from voting -- infirmity, age, language, criminal record, childcare issues.
So for instance, as Brendan Koerner points out in Slate today, "Though the Democratic duo leads President Bush and Vice President Cheney by three percentage points among registered voters, it trails by three points among likely voters."
Koerner goes on to explain how pollsters figure out likely voters, usually by deft means of asking questions:
"The most thorough polls ask whether respondents know where their polling places are and how they plan to travel there on Election Day. Another tactic is to couch the questions about past voting habits in soothing language, so the respondents don't feel as if an 'I didn't vote last election" reply is equivalent to confessing that they're bad Americans. A popular way to phrase the voting-history question, for example, is along the lines of: 'In the last election, did something come up that prevented you from voting?'
In 1999, the Pew Research Center ... followed up with respondents after the election and concluded that it had correctly predicted the voting behavior of 73 percent of those surveyed. In the more-art-than-science world of polling, that's considered a pretty good result."
This seems significant, that 73 percent is considered good for determining likely voters. That's a gentleman "C" in most academic venues, isn't it?
We've already wasted a lot of space talking about polls, but to complete the discussion:
Ruy Teixeira, a Democratic pollster, likes LV polls, but not this far away from the election:
"At this point, most polls are surveying only (registered voters) and I believe that's appropriate and, in fact, preferable. It is way too early to put much faith in likely voter screens/models as representing very accurately the voters who will actually show up on election day. There is reasonable evidence that careful likely voter methodologies work well close to the election and do fairly accurately capture that pool of voters. But there is no such evidence for LV samples drawn this far out."
All this talk about polls leads us to another point: Too much national campaign coverage rests with this kind of coverage: polls, message, symbolism, image, bounce -- stuff a lot of stuff political reporters, like BTC, can speak about with some authority, though, really, anyone who watches TV and reads the paper can do it. The entire discussion then creates a kind of McLuhanesque media meta-narrative (he's off message; that's a terrible image; she's trailing in the polls) that then serves to give the political insiders and media types even more authority.
Will there be stories on the candidates' records on the economy, defense, social issues, the environment? Stories about the validity and feasibility of their plans for the future? The Seattle Times has some planned for the fall. Let's hope the national media does as well.