Why Polls Are Meaningless

2008 Republican Primary Polls - The link to the left is to the Real Clear Politics Polling Data page for the 2008 Republican Primary. At this point in the election campaign, October 26, former New York Mayor Rudy Guilani was leading and Tennessee Senator and actor Fred Thompson was second. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was way down, with less than 6% "support." But when all of the primary votes were in, neither Guilani or Thompson were at the top; in fact, they were both long gone. Senator John McCain won the nomination and Mike Huckabee was second, while former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was third (Romney ended up with 22% of the actual votes cast.) On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton was leading the pack and now-President Barack Obama was way down. Everything changed once the votes started being cast, and the entire election picture was far different than what the polls were indicating a year before the actual elections.

Why is early polling so meaningless? There are a number of reasons. First, polls "sample" only a minute portion of the actual population. For example, there are 435 Congressional districts in the United States, each of which has one vote in the Electoral College. The only way to get a true representation of what people are thinking would be to survey a substantial number of likely voters in each district, a minimum of at least 10, or even better, 100 people. Pollsters, however, don't do that. They sample a number of voters nationally, usually a few hundred to a couple of thousand, without consideration of the demographics of where that person lives. They ask a battery of questions, and then determine results based on the answers. They "identify" preferences based on what the person being surveyed has indicated to questions such as "Are you a Republican or a Democrat" that are mixed into a battery of questions. They use "scientific" means of evaluating the data which is basically applying formulas that have been worked out by polling companies.

Just who are these pollsters, anyway? In some cases the polls are conducted by academic groups, but most are conducted by commercial polling companies whose main purpose is to make money. They publish their polls for a fee paid by the news media or political organizations. Many polling companies also do market research for corporations. They thus have a financial interest in maintaining an interest in their results. Some polling companies are affiliated with a particular political party. Each poll is only as reliable as the information obtained by those who make the calls, assuming they are using telephone polling.

So, just how important are polls? About as important as political debates. The only place where debates take place is in the Congress, not in the Executive Branch. After all, Moses spoke through his brother Aaron.

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Updated October 27, 2011