U.S Elections: What Are Opinion Polls?
If you turn on the television between now and the November 2012 Presidential election, chances are high you'll be bombarded by sound bytes, political spin, and other bits of information trying to sway your vote one way or the other.
In the middle of all this noise, reporters and political correspondents throw up hundreds of numbers trying to prove their point. If you're an undecided voter trying to figure out who's telling the truth and who could be bending the facts, it might be tempting to make your decision based on these numbers. After all, aren't all numbers facts?
Numbers can be misleading..
It turns out, numbers can be just as unreliable as political rhetoric if you don't know what you're looking at. Some numbers, like estimates from the Congressional Budget Office or ballot counts following elections, are highly reliable. These numbers are compiled and reported by groups that have no party allegiances and are held accountable by outside sources. However, other numbers like political polls can be fraught with errors and bias. And yet, news agencies continue to use them alongside their coverage of the election.
How reliable are these numbers? And what exactly is political polling anyway?
To answer the latter question, we need to go back to 1824 when Andrew Jackson was running against John Quincy Adams for President. The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian published the first straw poll, showing that Jackson was ahead by 335 votes to Adams' 169.
Much like Al Gore in 2000, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but did not get enough electoral votes to become president in 1824. Jackson beat John Quincy Adams by more than 77,000 votes, but since neither candidate received enough electoral votes to clinch the election, the outcome was decided in the House of Representatives. Adams won, and Jackson would not occupy the White House for another 4 years.
Straw polls are informal surveys asking the public how they feel about an issue or a candidate. Unfortunately, straw polls are not very reliable as they do not utilize any sort of scientific rigor.
A good example of straw polling gone wrong is the 1936 opinion poll conducted by The Literary Digest. The magazine sent out millions of postcards asking Americans who they were going to vote for in the 1936 election. They received back 2.4 million cards from their readers and predicted Republican candidate Alf Landon would win the election. However, President Franklin D. Roosevelt won by a landslide, calling into question the magazine's credibility and forcing them to go out of business.
In Part 2 next week, we will look at what went wrong with the 1936 straw poll and the rise of more scientific polling methods.
Courtesy eHow, Wikipedia