a weekly blog for all interested in professional communications issues

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How about making sense of political polls?

There is an interesting cat fight going on among political pollsters about the accuracy of their products.

Last week the pollsters’ trade association, the Market Research and Intelligence Association, took out an ad in the Hill Times, the newspaper serving Parliament Hill, to assure politicians and the rest of us that polls by their members were in fact accurate and professionally prepared.

The ad didn’t get much notice. But it should have.

Think of what the reaction would have been if the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers Association had taken out an ad to assure us that cars made by its members were safe, or if say the Canadian Bankers Association publicly proclaimed that its members were competent enough to take care of depositors’ money.

These days political polls are all over the map. One week the governing Conservatives have a 16-point lead over the Liberals. The following week, another poll says the lead is a much slimmer at eight points. Canadians are well within their rights to ask what gives.

As a result of the wide variance, Allan Gregg, the Harris-Decima pollster, has publicly questioned the reliability of some of his competitors. As a result, the polling industry is furious with Gregg. Hence, last week’s ad.

This debate likely will continue. With growing privacy concerns, call display and growing reliance on mobile phones, polling by telephone is getting awfully challenging. Some pollsters have already switched to online polling.

Does the industry really know how accurate its polls are?

Gregg does have a point when he says we put too much faith in individual polls and that they are over-reported by the media.

There is an old political adage that says polls may not matter. But trends in polls do.

We should be probably following trends instead of reacting to one particular poll.

The problem is that the media treat their own exclusive polls as the gospel truth while ignoring those commissioned by their competitors.

I have complained about this before. But it is worth repeating. The media are short changing the public in the way polls are reported by pretending their own polls are the last word.

If the polls are all over the map, that is what should be reported. If the trend is in one party’s favour that too should be reported.

The media should also have people on staff who are able to critically analyse methodology.

We live in an increasingly numerate society. Audiences are ready for a more sophisticated look at political polls.


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