Rod St. Aubyn: Maybe We Need A Poll Of The Polls


Not to rain on Rob’s parade with his partnered poll to be released throughout this week, but I personally am not a big fan of polls.  Cynically I would suggest with all the polls that have been released, should someone commission a poll to determine which poll is best as polled by the electorate?  I used to religiously monitor polls and put great confidence in a few of them.  But that has all changed.  For example, if we were to take the November 5, 2012, final Gallup Poll of the presidential election, it looked like Romney was narrowly going to be the next president with their final allocated estimate of 50% for Romney and 49% for Obama.  In reality it wasn’t even close with Obama winning the popular vote 50.6% to Romney’s 47.8% and with Obama taking 332 Electoral votes and Romney winning 206.  I was a great believer in the Rasmussen polling until final results were significantly different than their polling reflected in several polls.

In my opinion the polls are at times self-serving and less than objective.  How often do we really trust poll results that are voluntarily released by a candidate?  George Sinner, the Democratic candidate for the US House, semi-privately released his poll showing positive results presumably to garner more financial contributions from the DC area.  Candidates from both parties do this as well to convince the public that they are ahead in terms of public support.

Political parties run what are called “push polls” which try to get support for their candidate from those who original indicated a preference for the other opponent.  The use of these types of polls assists the party so they can announce that their candidate is ahead in the poll.

One must keep in mind exactly what a poll really is.  It is simply a snapshot of public opinion taken at a specific time. The release of the Forum poll conducted by the Bureau of Governmental Affairs at UND has raised more than one eyebrow with its results.  They printed a long Op-Ed in Sunday’s Forum justifying the results of their poll.  They went into great detail with some of the mechanics of polling that I had originally written for this article.  I personally didn’t believe their poll either, but who knows because it was a snapshot of people’s preferences AT THE TIME IT WAS TAKEN.

What makes up a poll and also how and when it is taken can have a HUGE impact on the results.

For example, a poll taken before a significant negative news event about a candidate can result in significant polling differences than a poll taken after the event.  Does that mean that the first poll was inaccurate?  Does that mean that the second poll was wrong?  No, not necessarily, in both cases.  They just reflect voter opinion at the time the poll was taken.

Sample sizes in relationship to the population size also impact sample results.  It makes a difference if the poll was truly random or voluntary.  Whether the polling was done telephonically versus online polls can result in differences.  Demographics can also make a difference in polling data.  Political preferences from those polled can also skew polling results.  For example, if a poll relies heavily on a very conservative part of a region when that region is typically not reflective of an entire state, polling data is very skeptical.  This has been criticized by many people in the country regarding some previous national presidential poll results.

With all of these variables, why even poll?  Polls do have some positive features for candidates in analyzing their campaign.  It may show weaknesses in certain demographic areas.  For example, the poll may show that the candidate is not relating well with women, senior citizens, or minorities.  A good poll will help the candidate direct their resources and messages in their political advertising.

One concern I have always had is the effect that public polls may have on electorate voting.  Though the effect may be negligible, I still am concerned that it may impact a fair election.  For example, the Forum poll showed a significant lead for Kevin Cramer.  Does the release of that poll impact others in the Cramer camp to think that they don’t have to vote because he has it in the bag?  Conversely, do George Sinner’s supporters become disheartened and decide not to vote because it appears according to the poll that he has no chance at all.

If I were King of the US, though Obama would have to relinquish that title temporarily, I would ban the public distribution of polls.  I do think polling serves a useful purpose in analyzing the electorate, though I worry about politicians governing by polls rather than by principles.  Former President Clinton was often criticized for his administration’s heavy reliance to polling.  Public access to polls should be used for entertainment purposes and office water cooler discussions only.

So which poll is most accurate?  – The one taken by all voters on Election Day.  Time will tell which ND poll was most accurate with the final election results.  Or will it?  After all, a poll is just a reflection at the time the poll was taken.  If it helps you win a political debate and have bragging rights, then fine.  But in the end, who really wins? – The polling company doing the poll.  After all, they got paid.