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Opinion polls are pervasive. But can we trust them?
The Tea Party’s emergence and the Democrats’ decline. Public backlashes to Obamacare and the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Murmurings about the president’s religious faith and the field of prospective 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls.
Think of any recent political headline and odds are it can be linked to opinion polling.
In the past, opinion polls weren’t very reliable (remember the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman”? It can be blamed on faulty polling), but at least their objective was modest: to capture public opinion.
Today’s polls just as often drive the news cycle and create public opinion. Given the pervasiveness of polls, the question is: Can we trust them?
I visited a few polling firms’ websites and discovered polls on everything from Americans’ feelings about Daylight Saving Time (a plurality thinks it’s not “worth the hassle”) to which country’s citizens feel safest “walking alone at night” (Singapore’s).
We used to get polls predicting whether the president would be re-elected. Now we also get polls telling us how people feel about his choice of pet or vacation spot.
But as polls have become more prominent, so have charges that they are politically motivated. Rush Limbaugh has accused Gallup of “doing everything they can …to keep Obama’s approval at 50 percent.” And Eric Boehlert of the liberal Media Matters claims pollster Scott Rasmussen’s data “looks like it all comes out of the RNC.”
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs once complained about a Gallup poll showing President Obama’s approval rating dipping to 47 percent. “If I was a heart patient and Gallup was my EKG, I’d visit my doctor,” he griped. “I’m sure a six-year-old with a crayon could do something not unlike that. I don’t put a lot of stake in, never have, in the EKG that is the daily Gallup trend. I don’t pay a lot of attention to meaninglessness.”
But the Obama administration has sometimes been very happy to talk up Gallup’s meaninglessness, er, findings. When Gallup polling showed initial public support for stimulus spending in early 2009, President Obama told reporters, “I think if you took a look at the Gallup poll yesterday, the American people don’t need convincing.”
No pollster attracts more criticism than Rasmussen. His daily presidential tracking polls consistently show Obama’s approval rating about five percentage points lower than other pollsters.
Political liberals, according to a Politico story, insist that Rasmussen’s polls are, “at best, the result of a flawed polling model and, at worst, designed to undermine Democratic politicians and the party’s national agenda.”
But Rasmussen’s polls were among the most accurate in predicting outcomes in the 2004 and 2006 elections. The liberal website FiveThirtyEight.com gave him the third-highest mark for accuracy in predicting the outcome of the 2008 primaries. Rasmussen was accurate again this year, with the only major miss its projection that Sharron Angle would defeat Harry Reid in Nevada by four points. (Reid won by five points.)
Politics aside, there are many challenges to achieving accurate poll results. These include survey bias resulting from how questions are worded, and sample bias caused by non-random samples of the population.
Every word used in a poll question can affect respondents’ answers. For instance, a February CBS/New York Times poll found that 70 percent of Americans favor gay men and lesbians serving in the military. But the same poll found that just 59 percent of Americans favor homosexuals serving in the military.
It would seem to be a distinction without a difference. But 11 percent of respondents apparently consider the military service of “gay men and lesbians” more acceptable than that of “homosexuals.” Go figure.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?