Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Polls - Voter Laziness, Party Sloth

Being the sort of person I am, I like to dig into polls to see on what they are basing their claims. More than a few fail to support their contentions. This is not necessarily because the pollsters are trying to mislead anyone, but in any case it matters that the reader should know what he is considering. And to that end, I am once again discussing why a poll is created, and how its results are reported.

Polling, you should know, is a business. Many people forget that, and as a consequence fall into thinking of pollsters as thoroughly objective and trustworthy people, the sort who should speak at Church on Sunday, and raise your children to learn all that is good and noble. Unless of course, that pollster is Zogby. John Zogby is a poster child for everything wrong with modern polling, whether it is his habit of mixing respondent pools from telephone and online polls, or his clearly partisan presentations. On the other hand, however, there is Gallup, which has a long and admirable record of trying to find the pulse and mood of the nation. In between the two extremes, are many useful polls, even when I disagree with their conclusions. The CBS News/New York Times poll, for example, tends in my opinion to oversample self-identified Democrats, but they also painstakingly report their internal demographics, so that anyone so inclined can take apart the poll and see how they got their conclusions. I find this is the foundation of any poll’s credibility; you have to be able to see their work. Otherwise, even if one likes the stated results, there is no basis for counting the claims to be sound.

But back to money. Someone, always, is paying for a poll. And while most polls will note the sponsor of the project in their release, most of the time the buyer can be discerned by the publisher. Neither CBS News for the New York Times, for example, is in the habit of giving over much credit to a Republican, much less a Conservative, and so the poll they produce has a similar mood in its direction. The reader may do well to recall that during the last several elections, every major candidate paid for his or her own internal polling, to be reported back privately to them. This condition implies that public polls cannot be wholly trusted on their face, and the student of the Public’s opinion should be aware of this point.

Another reason I am writing this column on polling, is the current practice of treating opinion polls as news events. If you think about it, you will realize this is very much putting the cart before the horse, as any responsible poll should be reporting on news through the focus of public opinion, not trying to drive opinion by implying a consensus already exists. The reader will note how polls often present one candidate as clearly ahead just before an election, how they will report a supposed support or resistance to a course of action before any such action is even in serious discussion in Congress or the White House. The fact that, so many months before the fall elections, the question of party control in Congress should be bandied about as anything sure or known, is to my mind no better than trying to ploy the decision in advance, tampering with the jury as it were. One expects this of known partisans, but self-described objective observers have no place in such behavior.

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