Don't put too much stock in polls

This editorial appeared in The Republican of Springfield, Mass.

Is the age of political polling dead?

Not if one considers the record number of surveys being disseminated to the public. What polling has lost, however, is the credibility that its numbers reflect a true measure of public mood, which begs the question of whether polls today are worth anything at all.

Today, the old-style way to canvas voters by calling them on land lines is obviously obsolete, and pollsters have struggled to adapt their techniques to modern cellphone reliance, social media and shifting demographics.

There's another variable that no data service can control: the voters themselves. It might help explain why so many recent pre-election polls in the United States and Britain have been wrong, almost always by underestimating the conservative right.

Many voters find polls a nuisance, a distraction or even an intrusion into their privacy. Many won't participate. It's likely some even answer untruthfully, just to throw a wrench into a process they distrust.

Yet a recent study by British and American researchers concluded that poll accuracy has remained unchanged over the past 75 years. Skeptics will look at those results the way they look at polls themselves: the numbers fail the eye test and can't be trusted.

Even if those results are accurate, it does little to discourage suspicion about polls. In this age of sophisticated technology people expect collection and analysis of data to be far better than it was 75 years ago, not simply "no worse."

Polls will never disappear, but rather than question whether they should exist, media and voters should take them for what they are worth — adjuncts to real news rather than news themselves. For instance, surveys that rank Charlie Baker of Massachusetts as the nation's most popular governor suggest the incumbent is just about unbeatable.

Both Republican challenger Scott Lively and the Democratic Party plan to run against Baker, anyway. They're hoping the polls are wrong. They know, as Baker undoubtedly does, that trusting theoretical numbers as pure fact can be a mistake, even if the polls are as accurate today as they have been in 75 years.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Pat Richardson, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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