Can we trust the polls?

November 3, 2008 at 2:54 pm Leave a comment

Evidently, seniors can’t plan on anything without a “real” deadline!  I’m afraid my blog suffered this week because I had major papers due, but with those behind me I want to return to some questions.

      The race is definitely heating up, and on Wednesday (I’m not optimistic that we’ll actually hear the results on Tuesday) we’ll find out who America’s next president will be.  My question for this week is – how much stock can we take in the poll results?  Are they reliable?  If they are, what are McCain’s chances of upsetting Obama – has such a thing been done before?  Or is Obama’s lead secure?

      There has been an incredible number of polls this election.  Everyone – reputable pollsters and brand-new ones hoping to be lucky – has been quizzing people daily on what they think.  We are bombarded with the results of ten million different polls, and have no idea whom to believe and whom to disregard.  One poll shows a spread of one point; another says Obama leads by a comfortable margin of 15.  Who is right?!

      I can’t tell you who is right, but I can tell you that they are probably all wrong.  They may not be wrong in predicting the winner, but they’re probably off somewhere in the margins.  Polling is an extremely un-scientific process; it’s much more of an art.  (Besides, the “random sample” of people is starting to present challenges: there is an extremely low response rate for the people who will actually pick up their phones and talk).  It’s imprecise.  And, polls are often used to shape opinion more than reflect it. 

      Karl Rove, President Bush’s former senior advisor, writes that polls are helpful for campaigns to determine swing areas, trends, and issues important to the voter. “The danger is that commentators use them to declare the race is over before the votes are in.  This can demoralize the underdog’s supporters, and depressing turnout.”  (Like I said, polls are used more to shape opinion than to accurately reflect it: if one person is leading by a huge margin, it may not necessarily be true, but the other candidate’s supporters will stay home because they don’t want to vote for a loser).  2000 and 2004 elections were extremely volatile, if you remember, and most of the polls were wrong, first predicting Gore and then Kerry the winner.  Even averages, such as those given by RealClearPolitics.com, can be helpful but not exact.  Unfortunately, I can’t find the article to link you to, or to provide an exact quote, but Reagan’s strategist (I think) made this comment about averaging polls: “The problem with averaging polls is that it’s like putting someone’s head in the oven and their feet in an ice box and then taking their temperature.  Sure, over all it’s normal and they’re feeling fine.  But it doesn’t accurately represent the situations.” 

     In other words, don’t rely on polls to figure out who is going to win; cast your vote and then wait.  The race ain’t over until tomorrow – or Wednesday.  And yes, such an upset has been done before: In 1980, President Reagan was trailing the Gallup poll the week before the election (by eight points!) and swept both the popular and electoral votes; Clinton unexpectedly surged ahead in 1992; Bush’s three to four point lead was erased the weekend before the election in 2000 (though he won anyway); and the greatest show was probably Harry Truman’s dramatic win in 1948.  It has been done, and it could be done again.

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