I graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1988. I learned many useful things while in college. But as a Sociology major, one of the most important and lastingly helpful things I learned was to take every poll with a grain of salt.
As this very difficult election season heads towards its culmination, we are bombarded with poll statistics on every side. They mostly say Obama is in the lead, but the lead ranges from tenths of a point to 15 points. The percent of undecided seems to be between 6% and 10%. The thing that worries me about this bombardment of polls is that people are already believing Obama is the winner. They see he is ahead, and that is what they focus on. Then, should the undecided swing the way of McCain, or the votes don’t go the way the polls are stating, there will be a cry of foul play! The vote has been fixed! Likewise if Obama were to win by a landslide, the same cries will be raised because of doubts already in place due to voter registration irregularities. Polls are really a detriment to the political process.
For those voters who want to say they voted for the winner, they will simply vote for whoever is in the lead. For those voters who don’t want to have to check into the issues, who want someone else to do the hard work for them, they will also vote for whoever is in the lead based on the polls because they believe that person must be the best choice if most of the people are voting for them. I know we don’t like to believe that people are so ‘weak minded’, but there are those that are and polls don’t encourage them to gain information on their own.
Another problem with polls is who is answering the questions. Within 12 hours, I received two phone calls yesterday from the same pollster. Now, we have two phone lines and I am not sure if the calls came on the same line or two different phone lines, but it still points out a flaw in the system. We have a total of four phone lines: two land and two cell. Now, we could potentially get tapped four times for the same poll….that would certainly throw off the results. And I know we are not the only ones who have more than one phone line.
Another problem with polls is the way the questions are asked. Ones that require ‘yes’, ‘no’ questions can lead you along. Studies have shown that if you are on a roll of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’, sometimes you will say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a question you didn’t meant too. And then there is the emphasis placed on different words in questions, the word order of the questions, and you don’t know what the pollster is doing with your answers. Do they have a quota? Are they taking the results that they don’t like and tossing a certain percentage of them, so that the results that they want are the ones we hear?
Let me share the questions I was asked last night?
1. Are you planning on voting in the November 4th election?
2. For the Presidential election, are you going to vote for John McCain?
3. Are you ProLife?
For me, these quesitons were a series of ‘yes’ answers, but I can’t help but wonder if the survey would have simply stopped if I had said no after either of the first two quesitons.
Then there were the demographic questions:
1. Are you male?
2. Are you over 35?
3. Have you ever given given money in support of a political candidate, church, or non profit organization?
Question 3 gives me pause. I think most people could say yes there, especially since they throw in the non-profit organization. But I wonder how the results will be presented. Will it say something like 80% of church supporting, ProLife females over 35 plan to vote for John McCain on November 4th? Technically they can say that, but maybe my support was for a political candidate or a non-profit organization, and maybe I don’t attend church at all. This is just one example of how polls can say what the pollster wants them to say.
So, my thought to you is simply this. Read polls (all polls, not just political ones) with a grain of salt, or better yet, don’t pay them any attention at all. And keep a sane attitude next week. Our country has grown more and more divided over recent years. I pray that sane attitudes will prevail and that those on the ‘losing’ side will be graceful losers and those on the ‘winning’ side will be good sport winners.