President George W. Bush is ahead by two.
No, wait. Now John Kerry is ahead by three.
Wait, wait. Now it’s Bush in the lead once again by four.
Ever since the final debate, the two candidates have been neck-and-neck. All these polls are enough to make anyone’s head spin. But what do they really mean? Not so much.
The problem with these polls is that they are conducted by phone – and reach only people with landlines. This creates a large potential for inaccuracy because many people in the 18- to 30-year-old group don’t have landlines – they only have cell phones.
This can’t be good for President Bush. Polls of 18- to 30-year-old likely voters show Kerry is leading Bush by 52 percent to 42 percent. Exit polls in 2000 showed that the votes cast from that age group were split pretty evenly between Bush and Democratic nominee Al Gore, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The 18- to 30-year-old group is notorious for low-voter turnout. Only one-third of the 24 million eligible voters in that group cast a vote in the presidential election in 2000, according to the U.S. Census.
But this year, polls show a 15 percent increase in the number of young people who have registered to vote, and a similar increase in the number of young people who say they are likely to vote, said Andrew Kohut, an independent pollster with the Pew Research Center.
The war in Iraq and possibility of the draft may be one thing affecting the young vote. A recent poll conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election survey found that half of 18- to 30- year-olds said they think Bush wants to reinstate a military draft. Only 8 percent said they think Kerry wants to reinstate a draft.
Another reason to doubt polls’ accuracy is their timing. Ruy Teixeira, a senior scholar with the Century Foundation, said that the polls taken months or weeks before an election are much less reliable at predicting outcome than polls held in the last days before one.
“Sampling likely voters is a technique Gallup developed to measure voter sentiment on the eve of an election and predict the outcome, not to track voter sentiment weeks and months before the actual election,” Teixeira said.
“There is simply no evidence, and no good reason to believe, that it works well for the latter purpose. In fact, the evidence and compelling arguments are on the other side: that the registered voters are the more reliable gauge of voter sentiment during the course of the campaign,” Teixeira said.
Although polls have their place, time would be better spent reading about the issues than focusing on inaccurate polls.