HuffPost and Pollsters: Why We're Just Not That Into Them

This week we are introducing. It will keep you up to date on the latest poll results, along with the candidates' latest horoscope predictions, the latest online political betting lines, and the latest weather forecasts for key primary states.
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Just under two weeks ago, inspired by the polling debacle in New Hampshire, we launched HuffPost's Say "No" to Pollsters campaign with a petition urging people to hang up on the pollsters who, in tandem with those polling addicts in the media who treat poll results as if Moses just brought them down from the mountaintop, are polluting our political environment.

That initial post sparked a heated discussion among our commenters, so I want to take this opportunity to address some of the main questions raised and clarify our editorial policy when it comes to reporting on polls.

But before I do, I want to thank everyone who commented on my post or emailed me your take on the subject. The ability to have this kind of back and forth is one of the things I love most about our site and the blogosphere in general.

The feedback fell into four main lines of discussion:

1) Why this sudden desire to take on pollsters?

Actually, this is nothing new for me. I've been writing and speaking about pollsters (and calling for action against the dominance of polling in our politics) for a dozen years. In that time, I've written some 18 columns and blog posts about the unreliability of polls, and the media's over-dependence on them. I was even invited to address the annual conference of the polling industry to discuss my criticisms. Here is just a partial list of my columns and posts on polling:

Ignoring Iraq: Why Has it Become the Forgotten Issue of the '08 Race? (January 14, 2008)

Investigating The Pollsters (October 12, 1998)

Profiles In Poll-Watching (August 27, 1998)

Hang It Up (May 21, 1998)

A Modest Proposal (October 3, 1996)

Oracles And Demographers (April 29, 1996)

2) What about exit polls? Without exit polls, what kind of oversight will the public have on our elections? If we do away with exit polls, what will keep political dirty tricksters from stealing elections?

This campaign isn't directed at exit polls (although it is always troubling how exit polls are misinterpreted by analysts looking for a hot angle or explanation. Remember how the 2004 outcome was falsely portrayed as being a referendum on "moral values"?). But the focus of the Say No to Pollsters campaign is the predictive polls that have come to define and dominate the media's horse race coverage of political campaigns.

This coverage both drives the political discussion and can have a profound effect on a campaign. The sense that a candidate is "tanking" or "on a roll" can make the difference between a potential donor making a contribution or not, and a would-be volunteer deciding whether to give time to a campaign or not. Voters like to back a winner and are reluctant to "waste a vote" on someone who the polls tell us has no chance of winning.

In this way, polls become self-fulfilling prophesies that end up making more likely whatever results they predict while, at the same time, undermining the debate essential to the democratic process.

3) Aren't polls actually more accurate than you give them credit for? Wasn't what happened in New Hampshire an aberration?

There are many reasons to question the accuracy of polls. For starters, thanks to voice mail, answering machines, caller ID, and the desire to avoid telemarketers, response rates have plunged abysmally low -- often dropping below 25%. So more and more people are refusing to take part in polls, raising the question of who are the people not being polled, and how their refusal to respond is distorting polling results.

Yet pollsters, whose craft is all about the power and significance of numbers, ferociously guard their response rates and refuse to publish them. It's long past time that the public -- and the media outlets that rely on polls -- demand that pollsters publish their response rates as a matter of course, as they do sample size, question order, and the time frame over which the poll was conducted.

There is also the matter of that pesky "margin of error" -- a variable that is rarely accurately explained or understood but which, in fact, is more significant than how it is presented. More on this here.

But my main problem with polls is not their accuracy. It's how they are treated by the media, and how they have come to dominate our obsessive minute-by-minute "who's up, who's down; who's hot, who's not" political coverage -- and how this information has become a media crutch, an easy-to-obtain and highly addictive drug that allows reporters to pretend that the latest snapshot of the electorate (however accurate or inaccurate it may be) is real news.

And the poll addicts are more than willing to twist and spin the numbers to get a better story (however misleading it may be). Take the recent Los Angeles Times poll that, according to the page one headline, found "In California, it's Clinton and McCain." Here's the opening of the poll results story: "Hillary Rodham Clinton holds a commanding lead over Barack Obama in California as the Democratic presidential contest heads toward the Feb. 5 primary..." Wow, sounds pretty definitive. (Quick, get those potential West coast donors and bandwagon riders on the line!).

But read on and you discover that, "six in 10 Republican primary voters said they might change candidates in the next three weeks. Among Democrats, four in 10 said they could still change their minds." In other words, the majority of Republicans and nearly half of Democrats really hadn't decided who they'd be voting for. That should have been the headline: "In California, Millions Still Undecided."

4) Does this mean HuffPost will stop reporting on poll results?

No, we will continue reporting them but treat them as lightweight diversions on par with horoscopes and political betting lines.

To this end, we are introducing a new feature today: HuffPollstrology. It will keep you up to date on the latest poll results, along with the candidates' latest horoscope predictions, the latest online political betting lines, and the latest weather forecasts for key primary states (and we know how accurate those often turn out to be!). Pollstrology is a great way to see who is hot and who is not -- and which candidates' stars say they might be lucky in voter love today.

So you can feed your poll habit every day, but in the right context -- the way people who check their horoscopes every day know (unless they've checked their sanity at the door) that they have to take them with a large pinch of salt.

This way, you'll be well-armed with the fun ways to start a conversation that polling and astrology provide: "I hear Hillary is ahead in California... What's your sign? I bet you're a Scorpio."

And If you haven't already, please sign our Say No to Pollsters petition and pass it around to everyone you think would be interested. It could act as a citizens' intervention, forcing the polling junkies in the media to change the way they approach polling.

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