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Check here for more info on surveys and polls
Peter A. Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, discussed how the choice of words in a question can significantly alter the responses to that question.
For example, in the 1990s, strong support was found for "affirmative action" but strong opposition was found for "racial preferences", although both terms were referring to the same concept.
The same split applies to "comprehensive immigration reform" versus "amnesty;" both terms describe programs that allow illegal aliens a path to permanent resident status and possible citizenship.

Surveys and Polls - Are we destroying democracy?

Surveys and Polls: Do you think that polls accurately reflect informed public opinion? Neither do we, so let's talk about it.

Are polls good for democracy?

Are polls scientific?

Who should be polled

Are polls accurate?

Questions about polls

What about online polls?


We realize that polls are said to be "scientific" in that they scientifically select a small number of people (1000 or so) that they consider to be representative of the population being polled. If they can't find a what they think is a representative sample, they then "weigh" the results to account for any bias in their sample.

There are times when it appears that polls are more likely to be valid than at other times. Polls taken when people exit a voting place would seem to be more dependable that those taken just prior to the election by telephone. At least, exit polls question people who actually voted. Even then, many people refuse to disclose their votes. But, whenever and however polls are taken, there remain many doubts about their ultimate accuracy and questions as to whether they are an asset to our democracy.


Are polls a good thing?

We have probably all seen polls that seemed to us to be completely unreliable because they drew conclusions that were counter to what we see or hear around us. Of course, such feelings are not proof of bad polls, but they do raise questions in our minds. In fact, it turns out that there is ample basis for suspecting the results of many polls. Some questions are addressed in the following sections, but one question that remains to be discussed is what are the effects of taking polls on our political process? Do they create a "band wagon" effect that interferes with citizens making individual decisions based on their own observations and understanding of the situation. This will be discussed in more detail later.


Are Polls Really Scientific?

One school of thought, questions the scientific basis for their conclusions. According to Gordon Prather, " You've probably wondered what -- if anything -- is scientific about "scientific" polls.... The answer is there is nothing scientific about them. In fact, political pollsters turn science on its head. " Prather describes scientific sampling as multiple observations of same phenomenon over a period of time and a compilation of the results to determine the range of values observed. Polls can't be said to scientific samples because "The only way to sample the opinion of 10 million voters is to first ask the opinion of 10 million voters and, having gotten all those opinions piled on your desk, then randomly select a thousand of those 10 million."

Polls can have a greater (and probably negative) effect on our democracy than the limited value of the information they provide. Prather says, "... the danger is that the selective publication of poll results can affect the actual election. In particular, when the pollsters suppress the polling results they don't like or believe, they can make it almost impossible for Donald Duck to be elected president." (see Scientific Polls, Bah! Humbug!)


Who should be polled?

We must pass a test and show proficiency before we area allowed to drive a car, but not to answer a pollsters questions. Graduation from high school requires meeting the minimum standards of the school system, but typical high school graduates have little knowledge beyond those requirements. This is not suggest that only college trained citizens should be polled. On the contrary, most of us would admit that regardless of formal education, we are not knowledgeable on many of the questions (taxes, the economy, war, security, health issues, social issues) that pollsters want to ask about. Of course, not being knowledgeable does not keep us from having opinions, but opinions that are not based on an understanding of the subject are worse than useless as a guide for our political and economic actions.

In school we were probably told to give a response to a test question whether or not we actually knew the answer. The logic was that we might possible blunder onto the correct answer or at least get partial credit for our partial understanding and effort. On the other hand, there is not supposed to be a "correct" answer on a poll, so any choice you make is acceptable. Think of it like this, how many people refuse to answer a poll question because they recognize that they are not competent to determining a meaningful choice? The answer is that pollsters will not accept results that do not provide responses to most of the questions. As a consequence, many people who are pleased that someone has asked them to participate will happily respond even though they have previously given the subject little thought. Most polls are, after all, multiple-choice tests on which one can have an 100 percent success rate! One way of looking at this situation is to accept that people who recognize their incompetence on a subject will decline to respond, but many others will respond regardless of their understanding of the question or the subject.

Polls probably do discover opinion, but are those opinions based on any objective assessment of pros and cons of of the matter: probably not.



Are polls accurate? Do they measure what they say they measure?

Even the news media, which relies heavily of polls of news, recognizes that caution must be exercised when accepting poll results. CNN describes what in their view makes an accurate poll:

"For a poll to be accurate, it must be based upon a representative, randomized sample, employ valid or reliable questions, and have polling personnel carefully communicate with those interviewed. First, a representative sample is chosen through the process of random selection, which is basically a lottery system whereby every individual in the population (by age, religion, race, living area, etc.) in the nation has an equal mathematical chance of being included in the sample, just as in a lottery every number has the same probability of being selected. In other words, a properly constructed sample will include all segments of the population. If the national sample is large enough (typically 1500 to 2000 people interviewed) and is truly randomly formed, then those laws of probability state that final opinion results will be satisfactory...."

It continues, " But polls are not without their critics. One criticism is the "band-wagon effect," where published poll results may influence voters to go for the candidate who appears far ahead of his opponent. People want to select the obvious winner. A related contention is that citizens may even decide not to vote, figuring the election is over (this seems even more relevant for state and local races). This has happened with exit polls, when voters in the far West hear the early poll returns on the TV networks which may favor a particular presidential candidate. They end up not voting, thereby reducing national turnout. Second, poll questions over-simplify issues, frequently asking those interviewed for only "yes" or "no" answers to very complex problems. Third, not all polls are of equal scientific validity (the telephone call-in type is notoriously unreliable). Too many journalists ignore this fact when they use poll data in their newspapers, thus misinforming the public. Fourth, there is the growing number and influence of undecided or independent voters in the last four or five presidential elections. Many of these voters do not reveal their preferences to pollsters, hence generating greater volatility in survey research.

See: Understanding Public Opinion Poll


Asking questions about polls

Public Agenda Provides journalists 20 questions to be asked of pollsters before publishing the results of their polls. Some of these questions are provide below.

20 Questions Journalists Should Ask About Poll Results

1. Who did the poll?

2. Who paid for the poll and why was it done?

3. How many people were interviewed for the survey?

4. How were those people chosen?

5. What area: nation, state, or region -- or what group: teachers, lawyers, Democratic voters, etc.-- were these people chosen from?

6. Are the results based on the answers of all the people interviewed?7. Who should have been interviewed and was not?
You ought to know how many people refused to answer the survey or were never contacted.

7. Who should have been interviewed and was not?
You ought to know how many people refused to answer the survey or were never contacted.

8. When was the poll done?

9. How were the interviews conducted? There are three main possibilities: in person at home, by telephone, or by mail.

10. Is this a dial-in poll, a mail-in poll, or a subscriber coupon poll?

12. What other kinds of mistakes can skew poll results?
You should always ask if the poll results have been "weighted." This process is usually used to account for unequal probabilities of selection and to correct demographics in the sample. However, you should be aware that a poll can also be unduly manipulated by weighting to produce some desired result.

13. What questions were asked?
You must find out the exact wording of the poll questions. Why? Because the very wording of questions can make major differences in the results.

14. In what order were the questions asked?
Sometimes the very order of the questions can have an impact on the results. Often that impact is intentional; sometimes, it is not. The impact of order can often be subtle.

See the source for the remaining questions and further explanations of the listed questions.


Problems with online polls

For particular problems affecting online polls see:

Why Online Polls are Bunk Why Online Polls Are Bunk at


More to come



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