Monday, January 22, 2007


I was reading headlines a few minutes ago and came across one that said “Poll: Most Think Country on Wrong Track” and that got me thinking about polls.

The purpose of a poll, no matter the topic, is to get an idea of what the public is thinking about that topic. So polling companies contact a number of people that they think is a representative group. But, I have a problem with the whole concept of polls.

Polls (sometimes also known as surveys) are geared toward specific demographics which include ages, gender, socio-economic segments of society, politics, religion, sporting preferences, marital status, education levels, and a myriad of other factors. I’m not sure what the population of the United States is today, but I think we can agree that it would be next to impossible to talk to every citizen. Some people refuse to participate, others don’t meet the criteria of the polls, and some people will respond they way they think they should respond, not how they really think.

What I’m getting at is that polls can be slanted to a specific result, by design or ignorance. I recall in the 2004 election it was being reported that Senator John Kerry was leading in exit polls by a wide margin. As I was leaving the building where I voted, there was a young man asking people to talk to him. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but he was requesting Democrats to come over to him. He didn't want to talk to any other party affiliation. Turns out, he was doing an exit poll, asking people how they voted. But, by asking for only Democratic voters to respond to his exit polls, the results were being slanted in Senator Kerry’s favor. I’m sure some percentage of the voters he talked to voted for President Bush, but most would have voted for the Senator. And we all know how that election turned out.

Since polls can’t possibly get a true response from every citizen, it can only poll so many people. And depending on the poll, that number can vary from a few hundred to thousands to hundreds of thousands. So, a poll that says “Most Think Country on Wrong Track” can only speak to the people they contacted. In this case, if the poll was done in, say, Seattle or San Francisco, very liberal cities, most of the people polled would probably say that the country is on the wrong track. Had the poll been done in say, a smaller city in Middle America (one of the “red” states), for example, the results might have been very different. I’m not disagreeing with the results of the poll, I just don’t know the questions asked, where the poll was conducted, or who was polled.

So, remember when reading any poll that the results only represent the opinions of the people they actually polled. You may not know the demographics of the people polled, or even the honesty of the people doing the poll.