POLITICS

Here's Why You Shouldn't Freak Out About Bernie Sanders' Numbers In This New Poll

He's leading in New Hampshire, but probably not by THAT much.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is leading the polls in New Hampshire.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is leading the polls in New Hampshire.

A new poll, released Tuesday by CNN and WMUR, has some pretty remarkable results for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' campaign in New Hampshire.

The survey finds the Vermont senator taking a whopping lead over Hillary Clinton, 60 to 33 percent, in the state. It also gives him an astonishing 91 percent favorable rating among likely Democratic voters and shows him winning over both men and women.

It's also, most likely, a total outlier. 

That's not to say there's necessarily anything wrong with the way it was conducted. Pollsters vary in how they contact voters and in the assumptions they make about who'll end up turning out on Election Day. But the laws of statistics mean that even survey houses with almost identical methodologies will sometimes end up with results that just don't look like anything else.

As political scientist Seth Masket explained during the 2014 midterms

[P]olls are estimates of what the actual population is thinking, based on a sample of a few hundred or just over a thousand people. The idea of such a small number of people being used to predict how millions will vote sometimes irks observers, but it's actually a very reliable process ... But the results of a poll are always estimates, and they come with a 'margin of error' (usually ± three or four points) that gives us an idea of how reliable they are. So if we get a poll that says that 43 percent of Coloradans plan to vote for Mark Udall, ± four points, that actually means that there's a 95 percent chance that the true percentage of Coloradans who plan to vote for Udall lies between 39 and 47 percent. By extension, that also means that roughly five percent of the time (one out of 20), we'll get results that are wildly wrong, just by luck of the draw.

Taking each individual poll at face value often leads to a bit of whiplash. In New Hampshire, for instance, seven polls have been released since the beginning of the month, many of which are flatly contradictory: 

  • CNN/WMUR, which has Sanders ahead by 27 points
  • Monmouth, which has Sanders ahead by 14 points
  • Fox, which has Sanders ahead by 13 points
  • NBC/Marist/Wall Street Journal, which has Sanders ahead by 4 points
  • ARG, which released two polls showing Sanders ahead by 6 and 3 points, respectively, and
  • Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, that has Clinton up by 3 points

Our best chance of figuring out the actual state of the race isn't to figure out which of those surveys is most likely to be "right," but to look at all that data together.

HuffPost Pollster's average, which combines all of the publicly released polling on the race, currently gives Sanders a lead of about 9 points:

See all of HuffPost Pollster's charts for the 2016 primaries here.

None of this actually tells us who's going to win in New Hampshire or by how much. The primary is still three weeks away, the state's voters are notoriously fickle, and the winner of the Iowa caucus is likely to get a boost in the interim.

What it does say, however, is at this particular moment in time, Bernie Sanders likely has a comfortable lead in New Hampshire -- just not a 27-point one.

CORRECTION: The results of the CNN/WMUR poll were previously misstated. Sanders took 60 percent in the poll.

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