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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ind. Gov't. - "Polls: Accurate analysis requires understanding their utility - and limits"

From the Sept. 13th Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, a "Sunday Centerpiece" article by Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW. Some quotes from the long, worth studying, article:

“Unless mass views have some place in the shaping of policy, all talk about democracy is nonsense.”

– V.O. Key, “Public Opinion and American Democracy”

Public opinion should, and does, matter. The political world is littered with candidates and elected officials who have forgotten this. Polls are one of the most widely recognized ways to find out what the public is thinking. In fact, polls have become so pervasive that there are entire websites and publications devoted to them (see www.pollingreport.com for an example).

In the past, polls produced data that was used in campaigns, to predict the outcome of elections, and to understand voter behavior. More recently, polls appear to be taking on a more influential role, especially in presidential elections. This is causing some concerns. One of the main concerns is that polls may be keeping discussions about campaigns and policies at a superficial level because polling data is rarely used in the broader sense to provided finely nuanced information and articles about campaigns and issues.

No matter what limits there are to polls, they are serving at least two valuable purposes. They help to narrow the field of candidates to a manageable number, and they help to identify which issues from an endless list of issues will be discussed. * * *

No matter what method is used to narrow the field, it should consider what the public thinks if we are going to have a conversation that assumes we are operating in a democracy. Polls do that.

It may be difficult to gain finely nuanced understanding of what the public is thinking from a poll, but it is relatively easy to determine which issues the public thinks are important and even to gain some idea of how the public thinks those issues should be addressed. Even short polls can gather enough information from, and about, the respondents to allow analysts to provide insight into a number of perspectives for each issue.

We are lucky that, conceptually, gathering public opinion through a poll is not that complicated. * * *

While polls may be useful in narrowing the field of candidates and focusing discussions, they are far from perfect.

First, who is doing the poll matters. Is a campaign doing it? Is it a university or news outlet? Is it an interest group or political group? The sponsor of the poll is likely to influence the methodology, the questions and the purpose of the poll.

Second, polls are a snapshot in time, and public opinion changes. Chasing public opinion may not be the best way to determine what is important to discuss or identify which policies will benefit the common good.

Third, when respondents lack information, poll results can be more of a popularity contest than a real measure of support. This can be especially true this far out from an election or when new candidates enter the race.

Fourth, there are growing technical challenges to polling. The National Center for Health Statistics estimated in 2013 that 41 percent of households do not have land lines. The portability of mobile numbers has increased the chances that respondents do not live in the area being surveyed, and that can throw off the accuracy of the poll. It certainly has increased the cost of doing a good poll.

Two realities of polls are that they are easy to present in a news story and they are easy for voters to understand. The utility of polls and these realities make it easy to understand why they have become more influential in presidential elections. We have to be careful not to exaggerate what polls are and how they can be used.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on September 23, 2015 11:18 AM
Posted to Indiana Government