THE THINK TANK

Think Tank tells you everything you need to know about polling

Jan 20, 2023, 10:30 AM

(Library of Congress Photo)...

(Library of Congress Photo)

(Library of Congress Photo)

This article originally appeared Sept 30, 2022.

Polls: To believe or not to believe? Polling’s history provides some clues.

With the elections approaching, I thought it would be worth an updated look at the status of the polls: Can we believe them? There are some reasons for real concern, but the answer is not a simple yes or no.

I am a classically-trained career pollster with both serious academic credentials and 40-plus years of practical experience running a survey research company.

My lesson: to understand the problems with 21st century polling, there are lessons from polling’s history that can be ignored only at great peril. Noteworthy are some of their worst misses over the last century whose lessons have continuing relevance.

So, in the course of answering this question, I will give a brief history of the roughly hundred-year history of polling:

• The Literary Digest, thought to be the gold standard, at least until they picked Alf Landon by a landslide over FDR (oops!)

• The 1948 “Dewey defeats Truman” headline. How did that happen? And why was the University of Michigan the only entity to get that election right? (And why all good polling ever since has used their core principles).

• The switch to phones in the 1960s, how pollsters got around the problem of unlisted numbers (that one was easy), cell phones (harder and more expensive, but doable still) and ever-increasing nonresponse (the real Achilles heel of the enterprise)

• Why you see more junk polls than good ones.

By the way, some assume that professional pollsters are the first to taut the infallibility of the polls. Nothing is further from the truth. Some of the most incisive critiques come from within the profession, usually argued by some of the very best practitioners.

This will take our first three of the show’s four segments. The fourth will be very different. Veteran KTAR News 92.3 FM reporter, and new inductee to the Arizona Broadcasters Hall of Fame, Jim Cross, will tell us stories from his decades of reporting in the Valley.

Particularly notable are some fascinating anecdotes about his interactions with several American presidents, private encounters that were never broadcast. It’s worth a listen.

The Think Tank airs on KTAR 92.3 FM on Saturday 6-7 p.m. and Sunday 9-10 p.m.

Podcasts are available after broadcast. Older shows are archived at www.mikeoneil.org.

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Think Tank tells you everything you need to know about polling