Wednesday, October 22, 2008

An interesting article on the proliferation of polls and polling data

Objective data exist in a social context of legitimacy and political interest. Which data are legit? Which are the result of individuals and organizations putting out data skewed to their interests? Do public opinion data reflect reality or create conventional understanding of reality? These questions grow more relevant everyday.

In the past few years the number of political pollsters recording public opinion has grown, and the speed with which they attempt to capture empirical truths has become nothing less than instantaneous. So are these polls accurate? Do they tell us something about ourselves? For the most part, I tend to think, yes, but the truth is much more complex than yay or nay. This article dives into many of these complexities. Here's how it begins:

At three o'clock on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 24, John McCain announced a bold move. He was suspending his campaign and rushing back to Washington to deal with the escalating financial crisis, even if it meant skipping a scheduled debate with Barack Obama that Friday night. The McCain campaign heralded the ploy as evidence that its man was a decisive leader who would put duty to his country above partisan politics.

But the move ran into instant p.r. trouble. Barely two hours after McCain's announcement, a snap poll appeared in the inboxes of reporters and political activists. A majority of Americans felt the debate should go ahead as planned, while just 10 percent thought it should be postponed. By 5:17 p.m., the poll had been posted on the popular liberal blog Talking Points Memo under the headline AMERICANS RESPOND TO MCCAIN STUNT. Before Republicans could even spin on the prime-time airwaves, the poll laid the foundation for an insta-consensus that McCain's move was a politically motivated stunt that wasn't fooling anyone.

The man who soured McCain's moment is a rotund former newspaper reporter and natty dresser named Jay Leve. He is the editor and founder of SurveyUSA, the polling firm that tested public reaction to McCain's gambit, and has conducted many dozens of other polls that have informed and infuriated political watchers this year. Although Leve has trademarked the phrase "America's Pollster," he is just one among a fast-growing and fractious cadre of American pollsters spitting out numbers faster than Sarah Palin drops non sequiturs. On a typical day this fall, RealClearPolitics, a hub of news, opinion, and polling obsessively trafficked by political junkies, might feature 30 state and national presidential surveys. At least five different firms now conduct daily "tracking" polls to detect the slightest shifts of public opinion about the race. "We've seen a huge increase" in political polling, says Nancy Mathiowetz, a former president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), the polling community's establishment body. In the 1960s, perhaps half a dozen firms conducted presidential surveys. Today, there are dozens.

Leve and his ilk are proliferating because an unprecedented demand exists for the information they peddle. An anxious, politically savvy public has developed a compulsive need to know precisely where the presidential contest stands at any given moment. The profusion of poll numbers in turn fuels the public's hunger for more definitive, or more reassuring, polls--a cycle made all the more relentless by a panoply of websites, such as RealClearPolitics and Talking Points Memo, that post every last number almost in real time.

This new, frenetic age of polling has not necessarily led to more empirical certainty. The very instantaneousness of polls like Leve's threatens to shape perceptions as much as record them. And the deluge of polling data has just given partisans another opportunity to cherry-pick facts and impugn their rivals. In this besieged environment, even pollsters themselves fight bitterly over the best way to measure public opinion and whether the likes of Jay Leve have it exactly right--or very, very wrong.

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