As the 2004 presidential election arrives, many are left wondering whether polls are an accurate indicator for the outcome of this year’s election. This was the main topic of discussion at Friday’s teach-in with professor Michael Hagen and Joseph McLaughlin, a pollster. Wilbert Jenkins, a history professor at Temple, also spoke on Friday, questioning the accuracy of the CNN Gallup Poll.
“The CNN Gallup Poll is considered to be more Republican than Democratic. This matter was pointed out in the New York Times and proven to be true,” said Jenkins. “CNN Gallup polls five percent to 12 percent more Republicans then Democrats, giving President Bush the lead. When equal amounts of both parties were polled, Kerry had the lead. A large number of polling firms operate in this same manner. So how do we know it’s true if we don’t know the methods they’re using?”
According to Hagen, however, CNN Gallup uses a different methodology than other polls.
“A lot of the differences that you see in the polls are because of how they choose to weed voters out. Gallup scores people with a number of questions, I think at most seven, to see if people are eligible to vote or not. For instance, they ask questions such as where are voter’s polling places; if answered incorrectly, they’re ineligible. They then use those considered eligible to vote and compare it to other statistics. Other polls just use questions to weed out ineligible voters,” Hagen said.
McLaughlin argued that “inaccuracies occur to differing pollsters making different judgments; it’s these opinions and judgments that create opportunities for inaccuracy.”
The extent of random sampling also creates problems with accuracy. According to McLaughlin, pollsters rely heavily on random sampling over the telephone.
The first step is assigning a specific geographic area. After this, pollsters are able to randomly reach voters through information such as area codes, the first three digits in telephone numbers, and the last four digits of telephone numbers.
This in turn results in very few complete interviews, a majority of out of use telephone numbers, hang-up calls or calls that just aren’t received due to new ways of scanning phone calls.
Student Xandra Kanoff wanted to know whether or not the inability to contact cellphone users by phone for polling would skew the results of polls.
McLaughlin responded that “pollsters aren’t being hurt too badly. They mainly care about those that only have a cell phone which is about 9 percent of the population. Out of these users, many tend to be younger, tend to be more residentially mobile, and aren’t likely to vote. So it doesn’t really hurt the polls’ accuracy.”
Dotte Courtwaight, a canvasser for Kerry, wanted to know how the polls affect elections and the public’s perception.
“News accounts rely too much on polls nowadays,” said McLaughlin. “They’re too focused on who will win instead of seeing the overall picture.”
Hagan added that the media only covers states with margin of error; those outside of the margin of error aren’t reported on.
“Politicians have strong ideological views which make them less concerned about the public’s view. Therefore, they use polls not to see public views but to see how they can get enough of the public on their side. It’s not until the end that they become more responsive, for as the election draws nearer to an end politicians move towards the middle,” said Hagan.
Look for an election post-mortem at next Friday’s Teach-In.
Erin Schlesing can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org