About Those Polls….

A recent polling “primer” intended for journalists has some useful cautions for all of us being inundated with reports about the “latest polling results” in this weird campaign season.

We are always (usefully) reminded that even the best polls are but a snapshot of public opinion at the time the poll is fielded, so results depend upon what voters have heard and seen at that particular time. Subsequent campaigning can–and more often than not, does–change those perceptions.

It also should not be news that some polls are more equal than others: good polls are expensive, and a lot of what’s out there is at best unreliable and at worst, garbage. Composition and size of the respondent pool (the sample), design of the questions and a number of other flaws can make some surveys worse than useless.

But in addition to those standard cautions, recent changes in communications and the willingness of the public to answer questions cast further doubt on the accuracy of even the better-designed polls.

It should go without saying that “click on our link and tell us what you think” internet polls are worthless.

The increased use of mobile phones, especially, has challenged polling operations. That’s particularly true because there are significant differences in the populations that use cell phones and those who continue to keep their landlines, posing a huge challenge for the algorithms pollsters use to compensate for inability to reach mobile devices.

Further compounding the problem, the number of people willing to talk to a pollster when they are contacted has steadily declined; some estimates are that a mere 5% of those who answer their phones are willing to answer survey questions. Even if the number in the sample is increased in an effort to compensate, it is highly likely that the people who are willing to talk differ in some relevant ways from those who aren’t.

We saw the consequences of all this recently in the Michigan Democratic primary. The best polling has come a long way since “Dewey Beats Truman”–but most of what earns headlines isn’t the best polling.

The troubling aspect of this is that even garbage polls have the ability to affect people’s perceptions and ultimately, to affect election results.


  1. MI was a great example of how poor the polls are at this time. They were off by 20 Points.
    The Bernie kids do not show up on the polls. Tricky stuff. Hillary should be nervous.

  2. Much mischief comes from the fact that most news sources have the same amount of time or space to fill every day. Some days important news doesn’t make the cut. Some days much filler is delivered.

    Poll results can be easily worded as though it’s important news but often it’s just fluff.

  3. Greetings Sheila. I hope you are making good progress during your recovery. Irvin

  4. Sheila, my husband had a 3 1/2 hours surgery with a subsequent heart attack and minor complications resulting in a hospital stay of 10 days which decreased his cognitive abilities due to Allzheimers. The first post hospital visit with his internist was limited to 1/2 hour. We discussed his long list of heavy duty medicines and his surgery and his activities of daily living but never had time to discuss what he should do now for the heart attack. I could not get hold of the United Health insurance person either by phone or internet. Even though I was a nurse I never taken care of recent Myocardial Infarct patients. While he was in the hospital a woman from the insurance company called to see if she could schedule an in home nurse practitioner visit for him so he could be certain he was seen by someone to ascertain he was in good health. She had not been given any information by United Health that he was in the hospital.
    At this stage of his recovery I am not being told it is certain he will not be charged for in home Physical Therapy. He did not go to a Cardiac Rehab facility because we couldn’t find from the United Health Insurance company. The insurance companies are making a mess of our effort to provide good health care and of course it is reported that the CEO Steve Helmsley makes $110 million last year. This is egregious greed and immoral. from BlueHeron

  5. I don’t like polls because their choices of answers are generally driven by whose polling it is. I sometimes feel sorry for the poor people who are hired to conduct them.

  6. Some the polls contain inherent bias based upon the selection of questions and how they are structured. Like some of those provided by elected representatives, they often ask questions that have only the answer they want to hear. They remain deaf and isolated from opposing points of view.
    Then they say they understand voter anger and want to address it. They are sooo convincing.

  7. Chris, interesting link. It does make some sense as a means potentially more predictive than polling. I guess we’ll have to keep an eye on it and see how it tracks over time.

    It’s always dangerous to trust feelings over data but what this says now “feels” plausible.

  8. Gail, I am so sorry you are having a hard time. You must get frantic. I see doctors a lot. I hope you can work things out.

  9. All of this is totally subjective. Who that does the polling, when and where they do it, what questions they ask including their phrasing, and whom those that do the polling ultimately canvass. Add to that which polls major media, in all of its various formats, choose to cite. As Sheila keyed, they are good only as snapshots yet they are always built up as something more than that. With all of the inherent biases and data skewing involved in orchestrating them it’s no wonder they’re inaccurate. In any case, as Pete eluded to above, in cable and network TV news they’re basically graphic props anyway.

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