Polls: Can’t Always Trust Them, But Can’t Live Without Them

Posted February 7, 2008 at 11:18am

That’s the last line of a fine piece on the patchy record of election polls by George Bishop, in Sunday’s Washington Post. Which we thought worth pointing out to you now that the pre-Super Tuesday rush of polls is over, and we have a little time to catch our breaths before the next round of votes. Bishop, a University of Cincinnati professor who wrote a book about polls called “The Illusion of Public Opinion,” says the key question when it comes to the accuracy of polls is: “In dutifully answering pollsters’ survey questions, do voters really know how likely they are to vote? Do they actually know when they finally decided whom to vote for? And how do they know whether they’re likely to change their minds at the last moment and vote for someone else? ”

(There’s a piece in Newsweek that circles around the same question, “When It’s Head Versus the Heart, The Heart Wins.”)

“When we ask survey respondents which issue or which candidate quality most influenced their votes, we shouldn’t take their self-reports at face value,” Bishop says, and draws this conclusion: “Along with demographic analyses of the electorate, such self-reports may provide some useful clues about what factors might have mattered, or what media messages and partisan spin voters may have been exposed to during the campaign, but not much else. It will tell us very little, psychologically, about why a given contest turned out the way it did.”

But Bishop offers some consolation for those misled by polls during the primary season. With the exception of the famous “Dewey Beats Truman” disaster, he says polls for the general election have a record of “outstanding accuracy.”