How to be an intelligent consumer of political polls

As the days get shorter and the air gets cooler, we are on the edge of a cool, colorful season. We are not talking about autumn — instead, “polling season” is upon us! As the US Presidential race heats up, one thing we can count on is being inundated with polls and pundits spinning polling results.

Most market researchers are interested in polls. Political polling pre-dates the modern market research industry and most market research techniques used today have antecedents from the polling world. And, as we have stated in a previous post, polls can be as important as the election itself.

The polls themselves influence voting behavior which should place polling organizations in an ethical quandary. Our view is that polls, when properly done, are an important facet of modern democracy. Polls can inform our leaders as to what the electorate cares about and keep them accountable. This season, polls are determining which candidates get on the debate stage and are driving which issues candidates are discussing most prominently.

The sheer number of polls that we are about to see will be overwhelming. Some will be well-conducted, some will be shams, and many will be in between. To help, we thought we’d write this post on how be an intelligent consumer of polls and what to look out for when reading the polls or hearing about them in the media.

  • First, and this is harder than it sounds, you have to put your own biases aside. Maybe you are a staunch conservative or liberal or maybe you are in the middle. Whatever your leaning, your political views are likely going to get in the way of you becoming a good reader of the polls. It is hard to not have a confirmation bias when viewing polls, where you tend to accept a polling result that confirms what you believe or hope will happen and question a result that doesn’t fit with your map of the world. I have found the best way to do this is to first try to view the poll from the other side. Say you are a conservative. Start by thinking about how you would view the poll if you leaned left instead.
  • Next, always, and I mean ALWAYS, discover who paid for the poll. If it is an entity that has a vested interest in the results, such as a campaign, a PAC, and industry group or lobbyist, go no further. Don’t even look at the poll. In fact, if the sponsor of the poll isn’t clearly identified, move on and spend your time elsewhere. Good polls always disclose who paid for it.
  • Don’t just look to who released the poll, review which organization executed it. For the most part, polls executed by major polling organizations (Gallup, Harris, ORC, Pew, etc.) will be worth reviewing as will polls done by colleges with polling centers (Marist, Quinnipiac, Sienna, etc.). But there are some excellent polling firms out there you likely have never heard of. When in doubt, remember that Five Thirty Eight gives pollsters grades based on their past performances.  Despite what you may hear, polls done by major media organizations are sound. They have polling editors that understand all the nuances and have standards for how the polls are conducted. These organizations tend to partner with major polling organizations that likewise have the methodological muscle that is necessary.
  • Never, and I mean NEVER, trust a poll that comes from a campaign itself. At their best, campaigns will cherry pick results from well executed polls to make their candidate look better. At their worst, they will implement a biased poll intentionally. Why? Because much of the media, even established mainstream media, will cover these polls. (As an aside, if you are a researcher don’t trust the campaigns either. From my experience, you have about a 1 in 3 chance of being paid by a campaign for conducting their poll.)
  • Ignore any talk about the margin of error. The margin of error on a poll has become a meaningless statistic that is almost always misinterpreted by the media. A margin of error really only makes sense when a random or probability sample is being used. Without going into detail, there isn’t a single polling methodology in use today that can credibly claim to be using a probability sample. Regardless, being within the margin of error does not mean a race is too close to call anyway. It really just means it is too close to call with 95% certainty.
  • When reading stories on polls in the media, read beyond the headline. Remember, headlines are not written by reporters or pollsters. They are written by editors that in many ways have had their journalistic integrity questioned and have become “click hunters.” Their job is to get you to click on the story and not necessarily to accurately summarize the poll. Headlines are bound to be more sensational that the polling results merit.

All is not lost though. There are plenty of good polls out there worth looking at. Here is the routine I use when I have a few minutes and want to discover what the polls are saying.

  • First, I start at the Polling Report. This is an independent site that compiles credible polls. It has a long history. I remember reading it in the 90’s when it was a monthly mailed newsletter. I start here because it is nothing more than raw poll results with no spin whatsoever. Their Twitter feed shows the most recently submitted polls.
  • I sometimes will also look at Real Clear Politics. They also curate polls, but they also provide analysis. I tend to just stay on their poll page and ignore the analysis.
  • FiveThirtyEight doesn’t provide polling results in great detail, but usually draws longitudinal graphs on the probability of each candidate winning the nomination and the election. Their predictions have valid science behind them and the site is non-partisan. This is usually the first site I look at to discover how others are viewing the polls.
  • For fun, I take a peek at BetFair which is an UK online betting site that allows wagers on elections. It takes a little training to understand what the current prices mean, but in essence this site tells you which candidates people are putting their actual money on. Prediction markets fascinate me; using this site to predict who might win is fun and geeky.
  • I will often check out Pew’s politics site. Pew tends to poll more on issues than “horse race” matchups on who is winning. Pew is perhaps the most highly respected source within the research field.
  • Finally, I go to the media. I tend to start with major media sites that seem to be somewhat neutral (the BBC, NPR, USA TODAY). After reviewing these sites, I then look at Fox News and MSNBC’s website because it is interesting to see how their biases cause them to say very different things about the same polls. I stay away from the cable channels (CNN, Fox, MSNBC) just because I can’t stand hearing boomers argue back and forth for hours on end.

This is, admittedly, way harder than it used to be. We used to just be able to let Peter Jennings or Walter Cronkite tell us what the polls said. Now, there is so much out there that to truly get an objective handle on what is going on takes serious work. I truly think that if you can become an intelligent, unbiased consumer of polls it will make you a better market researcher. Reading polls objectively takes a skill that applies well to data analysis and insight generation, which is what market research is all about.

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