Pondering presidential polls? How to decipher the data

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 15, 2012


Who’s winning, who’s losing? How reliable are polls at predicting the outcome of an election? How do you know which ones to listen to, and which ones to take with a grain of salt?

When it comes to deciphering the data from polls, you may feel like you need an advanced degree in political science to really put the information in perspective. It’s worth the effort, however, to understand what polls might really mean.

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“Polls can give you insight into what other voters are thinking,” says Jim Warlick, founder USAButtonpoll.com, a political merchandise website that also operates as an informal, unscientific polling mechanism. “Polls can help you better understand what might be motivating a candidate during different times in the campaign.”

If you’re following the polls, keep these fundamental considerations in mind when evaluating the worth of poll results:

* Look at both sides, not just your own – It’s human nature to seek out information that supports your own way of thinking, so you may be tempted to only consider polls that show your candidate in the lead. But looking at poll results that may run counter to your own opinions will help you get a clearer understanding of the bigger picture.

* Evaluate the process – It’s well know that how a survey question is worded can strongly influence the statistical outcome of a poll. The simpler poll questions (for example, “If the election were held tomorrow, which candidate would you vote for?”) tend to yield the least biased results. Even better, look to a poll where voters literally put their money behind their poll response. At USAButtonPoll.com, a purchase is counted as a vote for a candidate. While you can post your Button Poll vote on Facebook, the site is completely confidential and doesn’t store your information. How much you spend doesn’t weight your vote and poll results update every 72 hours. The site is accurate, Warlick says, because “if you’re willing to actually spend money to buy a button or other candidate merchandise, you’re more likely to vote in the election – and cast your vote for the candidate you say you will support.”

* Consider the source – Who staged the poll? Was it a political action group? An organization closely associated with a candidate? Did the poll organizers have their own agenda? The website gradethenews.org, suggests you can put the most trust in polls conducted by high-profile independent firms or that were sponsored by the news media. Independent websites often offer clearer, more objective data.

* Consider the target – Who is the poll designed to appeal to? Many polls and surveys are intended for a particular audience. If you know who the message is aimed for, you may be able to better evaluate the worth of the results.

* Consider the sample size – It is possible to accurately predict the behavior of a large group of people based on responses from a smaller number of poll respondents. But the size of the sample is important; the more people included in the survey, the more accurate its results/predictions are likely to be.

* Look at the track record – It seems like a new poll springs up daily during a presidential campaign, but many more have been around for decades. Look to polls that have a proven track record of accuracy. For example, USAButtonPoll.com has accurately predicted the outcome of every presidential election since its launch in 1998 (with the exception of the 2000 presidential race).

* Consider the time frame – Polls taken months before an election, in general, will be less accurate than those taken in the final weeks of a campaign. That could be because many people don’t really seriously think about their vote – or their response to a poll – until the election is closer.

While polls can be useful and entertaining, nothing is a substitute for actually exercising your right – and responsibility – as an American and getting out there and voting on Election Day. If you’re not already registered, check with your state’s Office of the Secretary of State or Elections Board to learn how. In many states, you can even register online.