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According to the Pew Research Center, polling involves surveying a broad range of opinions about specific issues like elections, climate change, abortion, education, racial disparity and more. Unfortunately, polls can undermine the democratic process.
Polls make big, splashy, headlines, but it is important to note that polling is only a snapshot in a moment of time and there are many unknown and unpredictable factors that can skew the outcome. In other words, all polls and polling results are not equally good or accurate. And if polls are misleading in the present, they can corrupt the outcome in the future.
Too often, the cesspool of disinformation, biased media coverage, and the gullibility of many Americans drive the opinions that are being polled. One type of poll that comes to mind are the exit polls taken during elections.
Many voters will not share who they actually voted for, and some might even mislead the pollster. Other voters might decide that their vote is not important, or that the election outcome is a done deal based on early polling numbers, erroneously believing that one candidate or another is a sure winner. This can be especially detrimental to our democracy, just like voter suppression spreading across the country.
For the average citizen who wants to participate in the democratic process, polls and predictions can become noise adversely effecting the voting outcome. In the world of science and research, when an experiment is planned and performed it is to confirm or challenge a reported outcome. The number of participants must be carefully decided on and tested, with methods and materials duplicated, repeated several times so that all results are verified to assure maximum accuracy and minimal percentage error ( +/- 3-5%).
In other words, polls and surveys are important only to a point. They can provide information on a topic or candidate, as long as the sampling and weighting is carefully planned and well-documented.
For example, a survey of 1,000 Iowans can statistically be a good indication of what we would get if we asked every single person in the state the same questions. Survey and polling specialists are constantly working to improve and understand best practices to assure results.
For example, an Iowa poll on Joe Biden versus Donald Trump in the 2024 presidential election released in 2021 is unreliable and pretty much meaningless because so much can change between now and then. Yet, that poll can have an impact on Iowa citizens.
And, even though polls are not vital to our democratic system, understanding public opinion is crucial. Polls and surveys can shed light on our neighbors and community member opinions regarding issues that concern us all.
The time that a poll is conducted could be an important factor for poll participants depending on separate concerns during specific periods of time. For example, if an Iowan does not want to wear masks or be vaccinated, and is against mandates, he or she will respond differently to certain questions for or against the issue at certain times.
Polls can be valuable and informative. They can be useful in guiding the media or journalists for purposes of critique. For example, who and what is actually being talked about?
Distinguishing polls conducted by media organizations from those conducted by advocacy or partisan groups such as Pew, Gallup, GSS, etc. is also important.
And, finally, we should pay attention to the internal polling that goes on such as focus groups and interviews as part of specific campaigns and organizations.
In this time of disruption and polarization, many professionals conducting polls and surveys are still figuring out new approaches. Maybe election polls should not be used for prediction, as they can only give us a blurry snapshot of what’s going on at a particular moment in time.
The same poll two weeks later may yield very different results. It doesn’t mean either poll is wrong, just that the moment has changed.
Statistician Nate Silver and others who have built forecasting models based on polls and surveys are partly to blame for the conflation this society struggles with. There seems to be an overreliance on polls for political journalism. Most journalism schools teach students that they shouldn’t write stories based on a single poll, yet the market does it all the time. That’s why political communication scholars have been warning about and studying “horse race” journalism for three or four decades, if not longer.
Many people are concerned that political polling doesn’t seem to be helpful anymore. Political polling data rarely illuminates the race, it merely speculates on what some random people are thinking, and because cell phones and computers can be difficult to pinpoint, polling data these days doesn’t even necessarily tell you what your neighbors are truly thinking.
For example, a recent Iowa poll with 801 participants suggests that a majority of Iowans think favorably about the current governor. However, 801 participants represents a very small portion of the state’s population.
Voting, not polling, is critical to democracy. Polling is not secure, private, accurate or verifiable in the way voting is and has always been.
Polling allows media pundits, some reporters, and talking heads on 24/7 cable news stations to turn election day into election month or election year. Polling gives Americans what they are ravenous for: the ability to know something first.
Unfortunately, polling can shape biased journalism. Especially when being first is more important than being accurate, and telling people what they want to hear is more profitable than telling the truth.
We suggest that people assess poll results themselves, which involves two major areas: how questions are designed and who is selected to answer those questions.
When designing the polls or surveys, sometimes questions are too ambiguous. For example, if someone is asked — do you support President Biden or is the United States headed in the right direction — the wording is so broad that it can muddle the response.
These questions are designed for a simple “yes” or “no” answer, yet most people are more complicated than that. Some may support various efforts of President Biden, but not all. Or someone who says the U. S. is not headed in the right direction might connect that opinion with the leadership of President Biden, but they could also base it on a concern about Republicans are doing.
It is frustrating to see reporters and pundits take a poll question and use it to push a certain agenda. For example, the findings from a recent survey are cited in the Business Insider showing that people in Republican counties have died from COVID at a number at least three times higher than the number of people living in predominately Democratic counties. The suggestion is that it is the direct result of conspiracy theories being pushed about the vaccine.
Answers by polling and survey participants are another major area to consider. For example, a Democrat or Republican respondent may not want to express their true opinion, which means the lack of diverse representation among participants could influence findings. Plus, polls can ultimately shape public opinion, especially when respondents think it is better to respond as part of the norm.
The National Council for Public Polls describes essential questions to be asked in order to assess the accuracy of polling or survey data. We hope this can help our readers better understand how to interpret polls and better assess their value.
1. Why was the poll created, when, who created and paid for it?
2. How was interview designed and conducted (questions asked and not asked, face to face, online, etc.)?
3. How many people were interviewed, how were they chosen?
4. Is the focus on a specific group (teachers, lawyers, voters, etc.) or specific area (nation, state or region)?
5. What is the sampling error for poll results and are there any factors that might have skewed the poll results?
6. Have other polls been done on the same topic? Are findings similar/different?
The ultimate goal of any public opinion poll or survey, according to Gallup, is to offer a voice to a diverse body of people and highlight significant perspectives in society. We must all pay more attention and do a better job of evaluating polling and survey results because they often directly relate to dour experience as citizens in this great democracy.
The Iowa City Press-Citizen Editorial Board is a volunteer group of readers who meet weekly. They are Venise Berry, Dave Bright, Shams Ghoneim, Robert Goodfellow, Kylah Hedding, Jon Humston and John Macatee.
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