How to Tell Whether a Political Poll Is Reliable
If you’ve glanced at the news this election season (so like, the last two years), you’ve probably found yourself bombarded with election polls. But not all polls are created equal. We the Voters, a video-heavy voter education project from the documentary company Show of Force and the social impact-focused Vulcan Productions, has two polling experts explain just what makes a good poll in the video above.
All polls are conducted with an angle in mind, and sometimes, that angle isn’t just to figure out what the electorate is thinking. Many newspaper polls tend to be more neutral, because news organizations have the public interest in mind, but partisan news organizations also conduct polls that might have more of a bias. Campaigns, too, conduct their own polls, in part to figure out what’s driving different groups of voters.
Good polls survey a random, wide sample of likely voters. The questions themselves matter, too, since some questions can lead respondents toward a certain answer in the next question. We the Voters has some metaphors that help you understand exactly how this works.
Even the best polls are only estimates of public opinion, and Election Day will always bring some surprises. President Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina, writes in The New York Times that many election campaigns don’t even bother with national polls, opting instead to target specific groups of voters they deem likely to support their candidate (say, young Cuban American voters in Florida) and remind them to show up to vote. Public polls “often use conversations with just a few hundred people to make predictions about the entire electorate," he explains. "Getting a truly representative sample has become ever more difficult because of the growing percentage of households with only cellphones, the number of voters who prefer to speak a language other than English, and the difficulty in contacting younger voters, who generally don’t have landlines.”
Unfortunately, we, the anxious voters eager to suss out our favorite candidate’s chances, don’t have access to a campaign’s voter data. Until November 8, all we have to go on is polls, but at least there are some helpful hints when it comes to figuring out which ones to trust.