|ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) -- There are tent poles, telephone poles, ski poles, fishing poles, utility poles, poles for vaulting and even pole beans, which really aren't poles at all but look sort of like them.
Then there are public opinion polls.
The aforementioned poles have practical value. The actual value of public opinion polls is a subject for debate, especially when they are in reference to a political campaign.
"Opinion polls," someone once observed, "measure the public's satisfaction with its ignorance." While this assessment might come across as somewhat cynical, when you understand the fragile nature of polls, it's not too far from the truth.
"The techniques behind the numbers are a complex blend of probability studies, statistics, and sampling techniques that can easily and ruinously be thrown off target by a seemingly minor change," Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Walter R. Mears wrote in the forward to "A Journalist's Guide to Public Opinion Polls," "and questionnaires can be skewed by a word that hints at an expected answer."
"In the age of polls, all those sins happen all the time."
To really understand any poll, you have to be able to examine the questions that were asked, how they were posed and even in what order they were presented. Each of these elements can affect the outcome of a given poll.
Who is conducting or sponsoring a particular poll also is critical in understanding its outcome; it can give some insight as to the motive for the poll. While some polls are taken to gauge public opinion, others are taken in an effort to shape public thinking. When it comes to political polls, it would seem the latter is the case much of the time.
When a poll is taken also can influence its results. "The so-called science of poll-taking is not a science at all but mere necromancy. People are unpredictable by nature," American author E.B. White observed. "And although you can take a nation's pulse, you can't be sure that the nation has not just run up a flight of stairs."
One example of the timing of a poll and its effect on outcome will take place before our very eyes over the next few days. The Republican National Convention concluded Aug. 30 and polls will reflect the carefully crafted images that emanated from Tampa, Fla. The Romney/Ryan ticket will a receive positive boost in most polling.
The Democrats will hold their national convention beginning Sept. 3 in Charlotte, N.C. The Dems will present their best face to the nation and, just like the Republicans, Obama and Biden will be the benefactors of positive poll results. The effects of both conventions on the polls, however, will likely be short-lived.
Another factor that can have a tremendous impact on a poll is the sample, the people who are actually polled. This is never more evident than in a poll in reference to an upcoming election. Who is polled makes a big difference in its results.
Polling the general population to determine the possible outcome of an election is pointless because approximately half of eligible voters are not even registered. Trying to determine the possible results of an election from people who may not even vote is futile.
A poll focused on registered voters also is not very helpful. In most elections barely half of registered voters even bother to cast a ballot. Again, as with the case of the general population, attempting to gauge the outcome of an election based on people who may not participate is not very helpful.
Polling likely voters is a better barometer in trying to predict the outcome of an election, but there is one caveat. You have to trust the sincerity of the people being polled. They might be sincere when they indicate they are likely to vote or maybe they just want to come across as a responsible citizen to the pollster. Continued...