Devotees and election polling data are never far apart

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz admitted checking poll sites in the middle of the night for new election predictions.
Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz admitted checking poll sites in the middle of the night for new election predictions.

Andrew Gruber, a senior director at Qualcomm, often loses himself in his work designing cellphones. But he has developed another obsession, and he has started taking regular breaks to indulge it.

“Every half an hour I check to see if any new polls have shown up,” said Gruber, an Arlington resident and Mitt Romney supporter.

In Concord, Anne Irza- Leggat, a Democrat, suffers from the same addiction. She reads so many polls that she sounds more like a campaign staffer than the educational marketing supervisor she is. “Obama’s up by 8.6 electoral points since Oct. 21,” she said nonchalantly the other day.


With the election less than a week away, we’ve turned into a nation of poll junkies, fed by an industry that’s pumping out about 30 percent more polls than it did during the 2008 election, according to an estimate by the president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, Paul J. Lavrakas.

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Polling even has its own rock star, statistician Nate Silver. He has a best-selling book, and a blog following so enthusiastic that when he went on “The Daily Show,” in mid-October, host Jon Stewart seemed almost more excited about Silver than he did about the next night’s guest, President Obama.

“These people get to see Nate Silver,” Stewart said at the top of his show, “the president of Statistician-stan.”

There are so many polls, in fact, that we now need poll-aggregation and analysis sites — like Silver’s blog and RealClearPolitics — to make sense of all the numbers. On a recent day, the Huffington Post’s Pollster site was tracking 548 polls.

And there are poll apps so that obsessives can get a hit no matter where they are. Twelect 2012 lets users see whether the nation’s Twitter feeds are leaning pro Romney or Obama. On PollTracker, users can search by category, such as “middle class,” or Latinos, or by swing state. US Election Race 2012 gives live odds.


With the presidential race so tight, Romney supporter Kevin Martin gets several polling sites on his phone so he can see real-time information as soon as it is available. “Rasmussen updates at 9:30,” the Wellesley attorney said. “Gallup comes out at 1, IBD/TIPP comes out at 3 or 4 . . . ”

Martin says he doesn’t sneak out of meetings to check the polls, but, he said, “I get antsy when I know a poll’s going to update.”

With the hunger for the latest polling numbers a bipartisan affliction, Republicans and Democrats could buy the same bumper sticker: “Stop Me Before I Hit ‘Refresh’ Again.”

But some poll followers find that even analysis sites don’t go far enough. Kevin Mawe, an Obama supporter and Nate Silver devotee, has started tracking historical swing state data on his own because he can’t find it anywhere else. And he enjoys nothing more than a good margin-of-error discussion.

“If that’s obsessed,” the Dedham attorney said, “I guess I’m obsessed.”


But the truly devoted don’t — can’t — stop at polls. They regularly check Intrade , an online predictions market where traders can buy or sell “shares” of the presidential candidates and junkies can check the share prices. The more expensive a share, the better the candidate’s odds. Wednesday afternoon, Obama shares were selling for $6.61, and Romney shares were selling for $3.38. The numbers are updated once a minute — if you can wait that long.

‘People are pretty desperate to know who’s going to win.’

The site gets about 185,000 unique visitors a week, said Carl Wolfenden, the exchange-operations manager. That’s double the number during the Obama-John McCain race, he added, noting an increased intensity of the site’s visitors, based on Twitter comments and e-mails.

“In 2008, people took what the market said more at face value,” Wolfenden said. “This time around there’s a lot of: ‘Intrade is wrong unless it’s confirming my own opinion.’”

And when Intrade isn’t enough, people can turn to the work of Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. He’s an economics graduate student at Harvard University who uses anonymous, aggregate data from millions of Google searches to research a variety of topics, including his own obsession: the election.

After his piece “Google’s Crystal Ball” ran in The New York Times recently, high school classmates he hadn’t heard from in years got in touch.

“People are pretty desperate to know who’s going to win,” he said.

Stephens-Davidowitz, who admits he checks polling sites when he wakes up in the middle of the night, understands the hunger for new information.

His own father is so far gone that when dad returned to his apartment after a brief outing, his first question was: “Is Quinnipiac out yet?” (That’s shorthand for the Quinnipiac University poll.)

Michael Dimock, associate director of the Pew Research Center, says technological advances have made it possible for organizations to collect massive amounts of data at a lower cost and have therefore led to an increase in the number of polls conducted.

Some firms have assembled online panels of hundreds of thousands of people who are ready to be polled, Dimock said. And automated response systems mean that voter interviews can be conducted by a pre-recorded voice, not an actual human being. As in: “For Romney, push one, for Obama, push two.”

During the George W. Bush-John Kerry race in 2004, Dimock said, only a couple of organizations had the resources to do national daily updates. Now there are eight daily tracking polls. (Several of these, including Gallup and Investors’ Business Daily, temporarily suspended polling because of Hurricane Sandy.)

As the last-minute political frenzy builds, Lizz Winstead , the cocreator of “The Daily Show” — and emphatically not a poll junkie — says she knows people who are going to need a support group when the election is over because they will have no reason to check in obsessively on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog.

“They’ll need a 12-step program,” she said. “Or a 538-step program.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.