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Margins of Error: Poll Reading Tips
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January 11, 2008

It was "Dewey Defeats Truman" all over again after New Hampshire. How can polls be so wrong? Below you'll find some tips for evaluating political and public opinion polls and resources for keeping the campaign numbers in perspective.

In addition, get advice from Daniel Yankelovich, the founding father of public opinion research in an excerpt from the MOYERS DIGITAL ARCHIVE:

"I think that if I had to make one single suggestion it would be to ask yourself the question, when you look at the poll results, is this an issue where people have made up their minds? You may not know, but if you see inconsistencies, if the wording of the question changes the response. And you can ask yourself, have you made up your mind about Social Security, or Medicare or drugs for seniors, or more money for schools and things of that sort. If you haven't made up your mind, the poll the people that are polling are like you and they haven't made up their minds, you can't rely on the poll results." -- Daniel Yankelovich

Poll Reading Tips

The National Council on Public Polls has a list of questions all journalists should ask before citing a poll. They are useful questions for a media-savvy public as well.

  • Who did the poll?
  • Who paid for the poll and why was it done?
  • How many people were interviewed for the survey?
  • How were those people chosen?
  • What area (nation, state, or region) or what group (teachers, lawyers, Democratic voters, etc.) were these people chosen from?
  • Are the results based on the answers of all the people interviewed?
  • Who should have been interviewed and was not?
  • When was the poll done?
  • How were the interviews conducted?
  • What about polls on the Internet? (There's no sample control on the Web.)
  • What is the sampling error for the poll results?
  • Who's on first? (The ordering of choices, especially candidates, can affect responses.)
  • What other kinds of factors can skew poll results? What questions were asked? These questions are annotated at the National Council on Public Polls web site. You can also find an Ethics and Standards guide to polling at the American Association for Public Opinion Research.
Remember, you can often obtain the full poll from the polling institution.

Daniel Yankelovich
Bill Moyers interviews Daniel Yankelovich, founder of the non-profit organization Public Agenda and author of THE MAGIC OF DIALOGUE. Recognized the world over for careful and credible research on American values and public opinion, Yankelovich explains the need to be careful when reading poll results.

Published on January 11, 2008

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References and Reading:
National Council on Public Polls
The National Council on Public Polls (NCPP) is an association of polling organizations established in 1969. Its mission is to set the highest professional standards for public opinion pollsters, and to advance the understanding, among politicians, the media and general public, of how polls are conducted and how to interpret poll results.

Public Agenda
"Bashing Polls? Take a Number," is the non-profit research organizations coverage of the New H .

BBCNews U.S. Elections Polltracker
The BBC offers a frequently-updated interactive feature following four key pollsters over time.

American Association for Public Opinion Research
The American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) is the leading professional organization of public opinion and survey research professionals in the U.S.

What Went Wrong in New Hampshire?

"So Right, But Yet So Wrong," NEWSWEEK, January 10, 200.

"Were N.H. Polls a Repeat of 1948 Failure...or Not?," Jon Cohen, THE WASHINGTON POST, January 10, 2008.

"Why polls in New Hampshire were so far off," Carla Marinucci, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, January 10, 2008.

"Polling the New Hampshire Primaries: What Happened", John Zogby, Zogby International, January 9, 2008

"Hillary Clinton's surprise win," THE ECONOMIST, January 9, 2008.

"The Big Question: How did the polls get the result in New Hampshire so wrong?," John Rentoul, THE INDEPENDENT (UK), January 10, 2008.

>Do Debates Matter?

Also This Week:

What now? Our campaign expert looks behind the post-New Hampshire headlines.

>See also, Jamieson on Iowa, Jamieson on Politics 2.0, and Campaign analysis tools

Bill Moyers talks with Shelby Steele, who has written widely on race in American society and is author of the recent book A BOUND MAN: WHY WE ARE EXCITED ABOUT OBAMA AND WHY HE CAN'T WIN.

Fourteen questions you need to ask before trusting the numbers, the history of polling and an interview with the founding father of public opinion research, Daniel Yankelovich, from the MOYERS DIGITAL ARCHIVE.

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