Pulse of the Polls
What do political polls really mean? Are they more valid in aggregate than the daily ups and downs of the campaigns would have us believe? If you're only looking at the number, you might not be getting the full story of this election.
While the most recent numbers may make headlines, and publications like poll aggregator Real Clear Politics give some sense what's going on in the country's psyche, it's interesting to look beneath the numbers and focus on trends.
A search in Yahoo! Buzz index shows searches for Obama are nearly 20 percentage points above searches for McCain.
And on Google's Zeitgeist index, there's a similar search effect happening. But if we trusted search numbers to tell us the answer, Britney Spears or Paris Hilton would be far ahead of any politician.
To make some sense of what polls really tell us, this Bill Moyers report from 2002 with Daniel Yankelovich, an expert on on American values and public opinion, explains the need to be careful when reading poll results.
"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," Yankelovich said.
Polls' wording may still be tricky, but some concerns that lingered in 2002 seem to be clearing up in 2008. A reader of Vote 2008 wrote in this week asking about whether cell phone numbers are included in polls, and if they aren't, whether that precludes polls' accuracy because the demographics of those surveyed would be different.
For more best practices on polling, NOW on PBS provides a comprehensive check list for making a good poll and how to spot fallacies and misinformation.