TOPICS > Nation

Poll Mania

October 15, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Been polled lately?

MAN ON PHONE: May I please speak to an adult in the household?

TERENCE SMITH: You may be soon. Americans are being surveyed these days on anything and everything.

CORRESPONDENT: A chunky beef taco means a vote for Schwarzenegger.

TERENCE SMITH: And with the onset of a presidential election year…

SPOKESMAN: The next president, Dick Gephardt.

TERENCE SMITH: There are going to be still more queries.

WOMAN: Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president?

TERENCE SMITH: But is excessive media polling of public opinion crowding out coverage of substantive issues? And is the sheer number of polls confusing readers and viewers? Along with scientific polling, media organizations are bombarding their audience with decidedly unscientific online surveys and questionable “questions of the day.”

LORI ROBERTSON: It tends to hurt the credibility of legitimate polls. It creates all this noise out there.

TERENCE SMITH: Lori Robertson is managing editor of American Journalism Review. She says the ubiquitous use of surveys may be confusing the public as to what is a true sampling of public opinion and what is a mere tabulation of those who have phoned in or logged on.

LORI ROBERTSON: A lot of news organizations have taken care to call it “question of the day” or “online survey” and not really use the world, poll. And that I think this is part of their way to distinguish this from scientific polls. But I don’t know if many members of the public make that distinction. It looks like a poll.

TERENCE SMITH: Scientific or not, some poll questions range from the provocative to the pointless. Take these, posed by news organizations: If you had the opportunity, would you personally kill Osama bin Laden? Do you think there is any possibility that Elvis Presley is still alive? What would be the most fruitful way to search for extra- terrestrial life?

Measuring public opinion has become much easier than it was in the early days when most polling was done in person, door-to-door. Today, drawing a random sample with a telephone survey is more reliable, and less expensive. The result…

CALLER: I’m calling for CBS News…

TERENCE SMITH: A dramatic increase in scientific polling.

SPOKESMAN: The ground rules for this, as agreed by you gentlemen…

TERENCE SMITH: Lori Robertson found 20 polls done in the two months before the 1980 presidential election, one hundred thirty during the same period in 2000. Unscientific phone-in and online polls have also become popular.

SUSAN PINKUS: It doesn’t matter that 20,000 people call in, that doesn’t mean that it’s a reliable poll.

TERENCE SMITH: Susan Pinkus, director of the Los Angeles Times poll, says a large number of responses is not necessarily a random sample of public opinion.

SUSAN PINKUS: What I worry about is when some organizations will say, who are you gonna vote for or is this issue important to you and then call in and tell us how you feel. The problem with those kinds of things, is that groups tend to get their membership to call in and hog the phones.

TERENCE SMITH: She conducts workshops to help her newspaper’s reporters and editors sort out good numbers from bad.

SUSAN PINKUS: You want to look at who sponsored the poll, how big the sample size is, what the margin of error is. You have to make sure the methodology is sound, try to get the complete questionnaire so you see the question wording, and also that you see the order of the questions, so that, one question doesn’t taint another.

TERENCE SMITH: Some pollsters are concerned that the nuances of even scientifically accurate polls aren’t reflected on the screen or in the headline. The Gallup organization has begun releasing information directly to the public, because it says, the media were not reporting its results with any depth. And, says Lori Robertson, the converse may also be true. The media may be reporting polls where there really is no story.

LORI ROBERTSON: If a news organization pays the money to do the poll, it most likely is going to turn into a story for that news organization. And sometimes it’s going to turn into a story even if the results are very ambiguous or don’t really show you anything, or even seem suspect or questionable.

TERENCE SMITH: There is evidence that polling is replacing some shoe leather reporting. A study of network coverage in the two months prior to the 2000 election found that 71 percent of the stories were devoted to horserace coverage, up significantly from the previous two elections.

CROWD: We want Dean!

TERENCE SMITH: With so many hopefuls on the Democratic side in the upcoming presidential primaries, early national surveys of voter preference may prove meaningless.

SINGING: This land is my land

TERENCE SMITH: CBS News director of surveys, Kathy Frankovic, says in a poll taken this summer, the public did not even know who the candidates were.

KATHY FRANKOVIC: Approximately two-thirds of the public said no, they couldn’t think of, they couldn’t name anyone.

TERENCE SMITH: Not a single one?

KATHY FRANKOVIC: Not a single one.

TERENCE SMITH: Therefore, she cautions, reporters should pay little heed to nationwide surveys of voter preference done this fall.

KATHY FRANKOVIC: People should pay closer attention to polls that are done in the states where we know voters are starting to be attentive: New Hampshire, Iowa, and the states that follow New Hampshire and Iowa. Because there you are looking at the success or failure of campaigns. Of real campaigns, on the ground, in a state where it matters.

SPOKESMAN John McCain and I today…

TERENCE SMITH: But what impact will statewide media surveys have in the fishbowl of primary campaigning? Do news organizations, in effect, become part of the story through their polling?

DAVID LIGHTMAN: That is a huge problem, and its gonna become even bigger as we get closer and closer to the primary season. Because lets face it, polls create momentum.

TERENCE SMITH: The Hartford Courant’s David Lightman has been covering Connecticut favorite son, Joe Lieberman, on the campaign trail. He worries that media poll results may affect editorial decisions on candidate coverage down the line.

DAVID LIGHTMAN: As you get closer to the Iowa caucus on January 19, the polls on January 14, 15, 16, 17, are going to matter. People are gonna say, “oh my gosh, candidate X is in fifth place,” and so reporters like me may say well, gee, we don’t follow candidate X today, we’ll follow the front runner and number two, that kind of thing. The very things that give our polls credibility also make us players, and we really don’t want to be players, so it’s a real problem.

TERENCE SMITH: Susan Pinkus of the LA Times acknowledges that news organizations poll results may affect campaigns themselves.

SUSAN PINKUS: A lot of times, media polling, if it shows that a candidate is not doing that well, it might, hurt them getting money for their campaign, but that’s the name of the game.


TERENCE SMITH: By conducting their own polls, media organizations can avoid relying on campaign pollsters, who may release only favorable information. And says Kathy Frankovic, polling beats the conjecture that was part of reporting in the past.

KATHY FRANKOVIC: Is it better to have a poll, a scientific poll– it’s subject to error, we know that– is it better to have that telling you what people think, or is it better to go to three people on the street somewhere in some part of country and say, this is what the public thinks?

TERENCE SMITH: So brace yourselves, public…

WOMAN ON PHONE: How old are you?

TERENCE SMITH: Your phones may be ringing soon.