"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Songs of the Pioneers song from TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon's old-fashioned newspaper column, cross-breeding metaphors and journalism and art, for readers in 150 countries.

Monday, August 29, 2016

'Wrong' track, Interlude--Prof's primer on polls, part II


Rusting locomotive, Skagway, Alaska, Not all polls are as reliable as others and can lead to the wrong track
Old Alaskan trestle  and tracks--like some polls, deserve skepticism
Back in 2012, because of their polling, Mitt Romney, his family and campaign people were confident of victory and then literally stunned and shell-shocked as the election night results rolled in. http://www.tnr.com/blog/plank/110597/exclusive-the-polls-made-mitt-romney-think-hed-win#
This link explains why they were on the "wrong" track. What they really needed was my "Prof’s Primer on Polling," especially this editor’s checklist for evaluating polling, or any research.

Poll aggregators show a better idea than just one poll
Four years later, it's more true than ever that Americans need to understand polls in this election, rather than just attacking them if we disagree with their results.  We get new ones every day.
My advice is not to trust any one poll, but look at a bunch of them, and it's easier than ever, given computers and aggregators, especially Real Clear Politics and 538, which called every state's results four years ago.
Americans are justifiably suspicious of polling, and not just for political reasons. Some of the fault lies with newspapers and broadcast which have reported off-beat “research” to try to snag audience.  Last post I referred to USA Today once carrying a Women’s Day’s poll saying readers wouldn’t marry the same man is just one example. The poll was loaded with faults, and the media failed to point them out. Then Fox picked up the myth and continued with it.
On London's "Tube," the "right" track is always clear
S
o here is this prof's voter checklist for evaluating polls, so at least you can be sure you're on the "right" track with them, even if you think the country is on the "wrong" track, as I do. I think this should also be every American’s checklist too. 

  • When was the poll conducted? Results  change overnight as the RCP chart shows.
  • Check more than one poll for more accuracy.
  • Who sponsored the polling? Is there a conflict of interest?  Political polling is especially suspect if it’s loaded with distrust for the other side. Beware any polling done by a PR firm for a client. I understand the Republicans with their distrust of the so-called “liberal media” wanting to conduct their own polls.  But Romney's campaign fell  victim to the same faults they suspected from the other side.
  • Who was included in the polling? If you poll certain age groups or geographic areas or don’t reach likely voters, you’re results will not be valid. See number three.
  • How were the people chosen? Was it a true “random” sample? If not the results will be skewed (as with Romney’s polling).
  • How many people were in the sample? If the poll has fewer than 1,100 respondents, your margin of error is going to be more than three percent.
  • What was the response rate? If your sample was 1,000 and only 400 answered, you get results like the Women’s Day article which threw out more than it counted. Don’t seriously consider any response rate less than 60 percent.
  • How accurate are the results? Always compute the margin of error—it results were within it, then “it’s too close to call.”
  • Who were the interviewers? Were they professionally trained and neutral? If not, prejudice, inflection of the voice and other factors can affect results.
  • How was the polling conducted? Robo-call? In person? If it was a call-in or send-in, the results are worthless because they’re not "random." See definition in previous post.
  • What were the actual questions asked? Wording can influence results, and can lead to opposite results on the same matter, depending on wording.
  • Are the results cause and effect or just correlation? I saw a headlined story once: “Want to live a longer life? Marry yourself a younger wife.” The poll found that men with younger wives lived longer. But—this might not be cause and effect because there are many other factors involved—health, wealth, etc.
  • Does the headline match the polling results? 
If you can’t answer these questions satisfactorily, be suspicious.
 A few of the faults of the Women’s Day poll and article: 1. It’s not random for all women in America, only subscribers. 2. Women’s Day has more than one million subscribers. About 100,000 responded. 3. The results were clipped out of the magazine and sent in (pre-Internet). 4. Once the magazine got the results, some of them were not counted.
So, a responsible newspaper or broadcast station reporting polling results should include an explanatory item with every story. If it doesn't, be suspect. It should be written along these lines:
“The Daily Geezer poll of 1,200 registered voters in Geezer County was conducted Oct. 31, 2016, and asked two questions: ‘Will you vote Nov. 8?’ and ‘Which presidential candidate will you vote for?’ The results have a margin of error of plus and minus three percent.”

Next--polls showing America on the "wrong" track.
                            Accurate polls are like well run railroads--inspected 
               and run with very little error, as Forest Park railroad, Fort Worth

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