By Timothy Dillon
Photo courtesy of Jody Morris.
The first opinion poll in the nation was taken in 1824. It was a humble straw poll conducted by a Pennsylvania newspaper in Delaware to determine the nation’s presidential preference in the upcoming election between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. Almost 200 years later, polls are conducted in a relatively similar manner, but the questions and statistics have changed to match a 21st century setting. From Republican primaries to just after the conventions, there has been somewhere in the ballpark of over a thousand polls conducted in the current presidential election cycle. Is this too much?
It is a generally accepted scientific principle that when you observe something, you change it. Truer words were never spoken about polling. Each time the electorate is bombarded with new statistics regarding leads in the presidential race, its perspective and outlook is changed. Strong poll numbers for one candidate could discourage undecided voters from voting against the “strong” candidate. Conversely, weak polling data can be spun in a different direction, with accusations of sample bias or a bias in the questions themselves. Whichever way you spin them, they have been shown to be an excellent indicator of what is going to happen.
One of the top independent opinion polls in the country is the Quinnipiac University poll. Recently, BTR was fortunate enough to sit down and talk to Maurice “Mickey” Carroll, Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute who works alongside QU Poll Director Doug Schwartz. Together these two design the questions and and determine how the polls will be conducted.
“Doug is superb,” Carroll enthusiastically says. “Doug is using the best methods there are and he does it better than most others can. We use random digit dialing, which is standard. We use an excellent staff of young people from the university and give them valuable experience, which is our standard.”
Though the people behind the Quinnipiac Poll are pleased with their standards and methodology, they admit that there has been a shift in the value that these polls offer. What was once just an indicator of the public’s intent has now become almost more important than the issues themselves. Carroll explains that as a young journalist, when a poll is placed in front of you, you need to do some checking to ensure the validity of that poll. Not all polls are created equal.
“These days, there are a hell of a lot more polls, probably too many. We ought to do less, not to single anyone out, but with 95 percent of polls reporting the same numbers with maybe a percentage point extra here or less there, it becomes a horse race,” says Carroll.
With the sheer number of polls and the hyper attention to the electorate’s movement, the common voter could become paranoid with their decision. As polls continue to depict such a polarized view of America, where are the moderates, a key demographic of this election, to go?
Opinion polls are meant to answer the questions of preference and assess the larger question of “What does the electorate care about?” but there is another side to polling. Exit polls are conducted after a ballot has been cast to aide in the reporting of election night coverage. Opinion polls try to predict what a people will do, but exit polls tell us what we have done. Joe Lenski Executive Vice President of Edison Research sat down with Third Eye Weekly here on BTR to talk about the practice of exit polling, the state of polling in general, and what is on the voters’ minds right now.
“When given a list of items of importance, the economy is by far the high side in that subgroup of topics like jobs, unemployment, the federal deficits, tax rates, and gas prices,” says Lenski. “All of those issues seem to trump issues like foreign policy, executive power, even items that you think would be important like the power of the president to appoint supreme court justices, never seem to bubble up to the top issues.”
This is perhaps the catch-22 of polling. The polls ask a variety of questions, and while what the voter cares about comes to light, the other issues that perhaps they should care about fall by the wayside. Further, because of the numerous polls, news and media organizations have a greater pool of polls to choose from. If one poll doesn’t seem to fit the story they are pushing, or the agenda they have, they can simply find one that does. Polling is supposed to offer the truth, but can be spun to suit the needs of those who would like to control the conversation. One example of this was with former Republican presidential candidate, Congressman Ron Paul.
Ron Paul had performed better than expected, especially among young voters who preferred his libertarian approach to politics. In fact, back in February of this year, Ron Paul actually led President Obama in a head-to-head matchup in a Rasmussen survey — a lead that Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney would really enjoy seeing in the polls. However, Ron Paul’s trouble garnering his party’s support was what allowed him to fall out of the race, a sentiment that resonated at the GOP convention last month, when his supporters decided to leave the convention floor.
“When the two major parties are so dominating the discussion with hundreds of millions of dollars with campaign ads, they’ll be the only two candidates on stage in the upcoming debates, its hard for other voices to interject topics that the two major parties don’t want to talk about,” Lenski adds.
Along this train of thought, polls, while essential to keeping the people and campaigns informed as to the positions of the voters, do not necessarily reflect the total opinion of which candidate would actually be better serve the duties required of a president over their term. A lot of ground between what we are told to care about and what we ought care about needs to be covered. Show of hands: Who thinks we could?