Consequently, advocates now use polls to advance their agendas. If polls were truly scientific, if the public were well informed, and if public opinion was stable, this might help advance political debate. However, none of those things are true. Moreover, it is too easy to load questions so as to get pretty much whatever answer is wanted by whoever is paying for the poll.
Until recently, this wasn't that much of a problem. National polls were very expensive and only conducted by reputable organizations. But in recent years, computers and the sharp decline in telephone charges have greatly lowered the cost of polling and increased the number of polling companies. Now, just about any special interest group can afford to do a poll showing overwhelming support for its position. And presidential campaigns can afford to poll almost continuously.
Thus much of the volatility we have seen in the presidential race this year simply stems from a vast proliferation of polls. There is a poll from some major news organization almost daily.
But bias also plays a role in volatility. For example, it is well known that Republicans tend to vote in higher percentages than Democrats. Thus any poll based on the general population is going to tilt toward the Democrats. Narrowing the population down to registered voters will improve Republicans prospects, and polling only likely voters will improve them still more.
News organizations also use various tricks -- I mean "adjustments" -- that have the effect of tilting their polls in a Democratic direction. They do this by treating political affiliation as if it is something fixed and immutable, like sex or age. So if there is movement toward one party, the poll is weighted so as to eliminate this factor from the results. With the Democratic Party having steadily lost its dominant position over the last 20 years, the effect of this weighting procedure is to give Democrats more influence on polls.
Fortunately, the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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