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Political pollsters back to center stage

The recent interlude in election-related politics is nearing an end. It is transition time in the world of politics. And, it has much to do with political polling.

As the stories about the latest political polls make their way back to the front page of our newspapers and into the headlines on the various news broadcasts, surely elections are not far behind. The reality is that nowadays political polling never really stops surveying on the issues.  It is in the election season when we get to put faces with these issues. Speculation is already filtering into conversations among policy wonks as to what effects the Nov. 2010 mid-term elections for Congress will have on proposed legislation between now and then. Issues like immigration, environmental legislation, regulation of the financial industry and the confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice will all be addressed or avoided based on how a large number of Senators and Congressmen perceive the mood of the voting public.  

Tuesday, May 18 marked the first of many significant political Tuesdays to come between now and Nov. 2012.  The din of political debate is already noticeably louder.  The Tea Party crowd is blasting away at anyone who has ever spent more than an hour in Washington.  Republicans are already reveling in anticipation of a certain gain in seats in both the House and Senate. The Democrats are digging in in hopes of minimizing losses until they can get their star player, President Obama, back on the field for the 2012 elections.  Partisans on all sides are speaking with great confidence, with much of that certitude fed by their gleaning of results they like from “the polls.”  

Indeed, any sort of political junkie worth her/his salt is consulting with great frequency the growing body of political survey data and “cherry picking” their talking points from those with which they agree.  Of course, it is often the case that those polls that do not support one’s firmly held beliefs are discarded as biased or inaccurate. Perhaps a little refresher course on political polls is in order.  

The value of political polls rests in the ability of the polling organization to reflect the actual opinions of the nation or a specific district as closely as possible.  Advances through the years in statistical methodology have enabled polling companies to quite accurately reflect those opinions while only interviewing a small sample of the public.  To be sure, a number of myths and unfounded beliefs have sprung up to describe polls.  Chief among them is the accusation that a polling group could not possibly be accurate by calling less than a thousand people out of a population of nearly 300 million people.  Polling is expensive and the organizations who conduct them have a reputation to protect.  Accuracy is at a premium and there is little future in missing the mark on polling results.  Purposefully slanting data would be fatal to such a company.  

Polling companies are continuously refining their statistical methodology.  I have noticed more and more firms explaining the mix of land lines and cell phones in their samples.  Why does the type of phone matter?  Older, more traditional voters continue to use land lines while many younger voters and minorities have gone totally to cell phones as a means of telephone communications.  

For the politically curious public there are a number of polls at the fingertips.  One example is the web site RealClearPolitics.com, which daily contains the newest summaries from several of the more well known polls.  Familiar names like Gallup, Rasmussen,  Associated Press, Roper, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, Pew Research, Fox News and many more are included there.  One of the more recently conducted polls (May 6 through May 10) was the New York Times/Wall Street Journal Survey.  This poll contained some interesting results.  For example, the job approval rating for President Obama came in at an even 50 percent who approved of the job the president is doing.  This is up slightly over previous weeks and is in line with the same category of numerous other polls.  However, when responders were asked about their personal feelings for Barack Obama 69 percent liked him personally even if a number of those disagreed with his stance on various policies.  When asked in this same poll their opinion of the job that Congress is doing, responders gave only a 21 percent approval rating as 72 percent disapproved of the job being done by Congress.  When asked to rate their feelings toward the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, responders rated the Democrats positively 37 percent to 30% percent for the Republicans.  Incidentally, the Tea Party movement scored a 31 percent positive rating in this same category.  When asked their preference for a Republican-controlled Congress to a Democrat-controlled Congress respondents left things in a 44 percent to 44 percent tie.  

 Those who thought that a Republican runaway would be evident in the polls are probably somewhat miffed.  That notion may be premature. Republican campaigner Karl Rove is back in town with a new improved turnout machine and President Obama has to sit out the 2010 election as far as the ballot is concerned.  The country is as polarized as it has ever been.  I would suggest that those who cannot stand to wait until election night should keep up with the polls.  They make for good political arguments and they certainly let you know that there are a lot of folks out there who think differently that you do.


Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at marty@sig.msstate.edu.


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