VIDEO – Tim Kirby: Are opinion polls reliable?


The Center for Syncretic Studies’ Tim Kirby in this interview for Indus News discusses the correlation between polling results and actual electoral results. The show was hosted by Meshal Malik.

Brookings asked the question of whether we can trust polls? Under the best of circumstances, they argue, the answer is “Not necessarily without a fair amount of detailed information about how they were conducted.”

This general note of caution applies at any time to any poll consumer. But today, with polls proliferating in the media and with methodological concerns increasing within the polling industry, caution is even more warranted. This is not to suggest that the general quality of polling data is declining or that the problems facing pollsters have no answers. Still, consumers of polling data need to be more careful than ever.

For preelection polls that project the outcome of a race, preliminary research suggests that the same factors that may lower participation in surveys may also lower participation in elections. Declining response rates thus do not seem to pose dangers to the accuracy of estimates of the outcome of recent presidential elections, Brookings said. More research will help clarify whether declining participation will affect preelection estimates in lower-turnout elections held in nonpresidential years or whether over time it will have different effects on future preelection estimates.

Preelection polls are unusual in that their accuracy can be checked against the outcome of the election itself. (That characteristic may create a misplaced confidence in polling generally, since similar external validations do not apply in many other polling situations.) When it comes to polling on issues of general government policy, we do not know the potential impact of declining survey participation rates because we have no way to check the accuracy of the polls, Brookings continued. For example, when polls assess the public’s response to or appraisal of policies such as military action in Iraq or a proposed tax cut, there is no equivalent independent way to measure the validity of the measurements. There is, however, some suggestion that policy polling results may reflect more conservative or Republican views than are present in the population as a whole—a bias that would not be surprising because Republicans have long been known to be more likely to vote than Democrats (a fact accounted for in the likelihood estimators used by most polling firms).

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