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Survey: How Polls Can Be Highly Useful When Done Correctly

March 24, 2011

Polls, when done correctly and honestly, can be a useful fact-finding tool. “While sociologists and economists like to point out the influence of biases in polls, there’s no question of their usefulness.”

That’s from Floodlight, which says yeah, polls “in their most basic form are the sample polls. Because they’re about facts and not opinions, these kinds of polls are pretty basic.”

You know these kinds of polls, odds are good you’ve been contacted for one -- “Hi, we’re doing a survey, are you a registered voter? If the election were held tomorrow, would you vote for Candidate A or Candidate B?”

Such polls’ accuracy and usefulness depends largely on “the scientific method behind the selection of the people polled,” what kind of a representation the pollster included, for its value. Polling 500 college students on whether the government should hand out free beer will get you a different result than polling 500 retirement home residents.

Now, opinion polls are different. These are the ones which purport to show that, say, more people love their jobs -- 37 percent -- than hate their jobs -- 13 percent -- while the other half just shrug and go to work.

It’s this kind of poll that most lends itself to pollaganda -- every time an election rolls around you’ve subjected to the arts of opinion poll stacking, mainly due to how “certain pollsters may phrase the question in a way to get desired answers,” as Floodlight points out.

For example, during the height of the Iraq War, the media churned out a torrent of opinion polls “showing” that Americans opposed the war. Yet there was never a significant public outcry against the war -- when President Bush ran for re-election in 2004 on his war record he received the most votes any presidential candidate had ever received in American history, defeating anti-war John Kerry.

The reason is many of the pollsters were avowedly anti-war, and asked questions like “Do you like the fact that Americans are dying in a war in Iraq,” reporting their “findings” as “79 percent of all respondents oppose American involvement in the war.” Had they asked more balanced questions, such as “Overall, given the pros and cons, do you think America should continue fighting?” would have produced far more accurate results.

And the method of polling is critical as well -- the famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline arose from opinion polls “finding” that an overwhelming number of voters were going to vote for Dewey. The pollsters, however, relied on telephone interviews. At that time, mainly well-to-do people have private home phone lines, so the sample was skewed. Today it would be like conducting an online poll to find what percentage of Americans use the Internet.

David Sims is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of David’s articles, please visit his columnist page. He also blogs for TMCnet here.

Edited by Juliana Kenny

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