Polling: Behind the scenes at Gallup, interviewers and editors
try to find out how Americans will vote on election day. With the
media's dependence on public opinion statistics, news consumers must
educate themselves about which surveys provide valuable data and
It's dinner time in America.
Somewhere parents and children sit down together to eat, to talk
through their respective days, to enjoy precious shared time. The
"Hi, I'm Michael Jablonski," says a man whose name is no doubt
unfamiliar to the woman who answers, "and I'm calling about a Gallup
poll.... We'd like to include your opinions. Can you help us out?"
His inquiry - from a Gallup interviewer sitting in a phone center
in a city office park here in Omaha, Neb. - is one of many thousands
that citizens will field from interested survey companies as the
2012 White House contest ramps up.
Their answers will mirror the mood of the country, but the mood
of the country can very well be affected by the poll itself.
Public opinion surveys have become a ubiquitous element of
American political culture. The numbers - some reliable, others less
so - are pawed over and interpreted for headlines, insight, and
horse-race drama by newspaper reporters, cable news talking heads,
and bloggers of all party persuasions.
With each successive election of the modern age, there are more
organizations looking to mine what the adult voter believes about
the incumbent president and his rival, the state of the nation, and
a host of issues from the economy to gay marriage.
With the media's dependence on poll numbers - and the sheer
frequency with which those numbers are collected - news consumers
must educate themselves about which surveys provide valuable data
"Polling is important because it gives every voter and every
nonvoter an equal chance of having their voice represented," says
Scott Keeter, the director of survey research at the Pew Research
Center. "When properly done, without bias and malice, polls can give
you a view of what the public is experiencing or wanting, which you
don't get from interest groups or the candidates or even elections,
which are very blunt instruments."
Gallup - by the estimation of most in the industry - consistently
generates quality data. Editors with the 77-year-old privately held
survey company agreed to let the Monitor take an inside look at the
process of putting together its June political poll, which assessed
the role of religion in the presidential race as well as a range of
other matters, including public views on the economy and the two men
who want to lead this nation.
The 10-day endeavor of creating and conducting the poll involved
Gallup staff in four states and Washington, D.C. Their work shows
how important the human element is in shaping and thoughtfully
interpreting a survey. Their efforts also illuminate the many
junctures at which polls can be manipulated by those more interested
in spinning numbers.
For example, question-crafting and order of questions when asked
are vital to a valid survey. So are well-trained callers, like Mr.
Jablonski, and the quality controls that guard their practices.
Proper balance of land lines and cellphones matters in collecting a
representative sample. How a data set is weighted - or made, via
statistical calculations, to resemble the adult population of the
nation - on the back end is critical, too.
Good polling is, in its own way, as intricately detailed as
"successful heart surgery," says Frank Newport, the editor in chief
of Gallup and the immediate past president of the American
Association for Public Opinion Research: "Failures, wrong decisions,
or low quality in any of these phases of the process can negatively
affect the objective of using carefully selected samples of
respondents to accurately represent the attitudes and self-reported
behavior of an entire population of citizens. …