Archive | December, 2003

Polls Missing Cell Phone Users…. and a LOT More

An article in the Arizona Republic examines how greater cell-phone use may be skewing political poll results, since pollsters are barred from calling cell phones, due to FCC rules against auto-calling cells and calling people who have to pay for the call.

The article identifies young adults as the demographic most missed, since they’re thought to be the group most likely to have wireless but no land-line phones. But that’s just the tip of the iceburg.

An inherent problem with telephone polling has always been that it misses people who don’t have phones. What the AR article fails to take into account is that many poor people also don’t have land-line phones, and often don’t have any phone at all.

Nobody, especially not pollsters, wants to face up to the enormous class disparity here.

On top of that, you have to examine who actually answers their phones and takes telephone polls — when was the last time YOU consented to take a telephone poll? I don’t know of any accessible data on this, but I’d guess that the telephone-poll-answering demographic skews older, middle-class and somewhat conservative. Nevermind all the people who screen most of their calls with caller ID or an answering machine.

Beyond the question of a sample that’s truly representative of the American public, my biggest beef with political polls is that they are the biggest godsend to lazy, bottom-line obsessed newsrooms.

Conducting a poll is the easiest and cheapest way for any news organization to create news out of nothing. You don’t need to send reporters to far off places, you don’t need to set up expensive satellite links, and you don’t have to worry about the unpredictable nature of investigative reporting.

Just retain a polling company and every couple of weeks (or every couple of days during the heat of election seasion) run a poll and publish the results as if it were news. Slow news day? Run a poll! Too expensive and time-consuming to analyze and break down the President’s economic policy? Run a poll on the president’s popularity!

It makes me wonder how long until we see the FOX Poll Network — we poll, you decide.

The awful truth is the polls take the place of real reporting and real news, especially when the public most needs it. We’re fed snapshots of what is suppoedly our national opinion instead of actual data about candidates, their policies, their records and the skeletons in their closets.

Sure, it’s interesting to find out what other people (might) think, but is it really truly useful or informative? Does it really help us make decisions about what to do?

Political polls are more like the Billboard Top 40 than any sort of real analysis. They tell you what’s popular, but they can’t even tell you if it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.

And like the Top 40, Polls are like one big feedback loop. If a song breaks onto the Top 40, then more radio stations start playing it more often. As more stations play that song more often, it climbs in rank… and then more stations play it even more often, and on, and on, until #1 and everybody’s throughly sick of that damn song.

So what happens when poll results clash with your own opinion? Say, you’re not too hot on Howard Dean, but keep hearing that he’s polling well in New Hampshire and Iowa? Does that data cause you think more seriously about Dean (“Gee, if so many hardcore Democrats like him, maybe he’s not too bad?”), or does it even cause you to question your own judgement (“Gee, I’m kind of out of the loop on this — maybe I’m not correct?”). Or maybe you just resolve that everyone in New Hampshire and Iowa is dumb.

The real question is: do polls reflect opinion or make opinion? I don’t have the answer, but the fact that we have to ask the question in the first place demonstrates just how seriously we need to examine and question political polling.

Bombarded with ten different polls a week during the height of election season, it’s hard not to let them affect our opinion. If nothing else they sure as hell help to reinforce the prevailing opinion — (“Oh, Gee, people are saying Kucinich is too fringe left to be elected? Well, that’s what the polls say, so maybe I shouldn’t risk supporting him, even though I agree with him most.”)

Polls are the cheap-money tools of a media that would rather turn it’s cameras around into a mirror rather than stick them behind closed doors to sniff out lost facts and hidden agendas. Polls don’t reflect reasoning, and don’t reflect nuance.

And 99% of smart people agree with me. So there.

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