Magazine article Politics Magazine

Taking the Measure of Polls

Magazine article Politics Magazine

Taking the Measure of Polls

Article excerpt

Just about everyone in the polling business is hearing the same thing lately: Why do the polls seem so wrong? Some public pollsters have urged us to pay less attention to the "horse race" aspect of politics as measured by surveys. Such advice, offered to the readers of Politics, is like urging you to stop blinking. So it's better if we learn how to sort out the sound polls from the shaky ones. The savviest poll readers always keep three things in mind:

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1. Beware the "horse race" question.

You know it well: "If the election were held today and the candidates were Smith and Jones, for whom would you vote?" This question can often be the most misleading measure of a race's potential competitiveness. If it poses a choice between a well-known incumbent and a little-known challenger, it will almost always favor the incumbent. Yet well-funded challengers often close those gaps. And open races that pit unknowns against each other can produce huge "undecided" results and establish "front-runners" who are far from secure.

A more sophisticated poll reader will want to look for measurements of each candidate's favorability and name recognition. Those ratings provide a better sense of where the candidates stand with the voters and which ones have the most potential to grow their support.

2. A preference is not the same as a decision. The "undecided" category frequently understates how many voters remain open to persuasion. One reason is that pollsters try to structure their questions to push uncertain voters for an answer, but many who respond with a preference have not yet made final decisions. …

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