As the 2008 presidential race heats up, we should all expect to hear more and more about polls as the weeks pass.
After all, polls are a primary way candidates and the media gauge how successfully a candidate is getting his or her message across to voters.
Though an easy tool to use, I believe polls are misused somewhat when determining the popularity of a candidate. I will elaborate on that a little more in a moment, but there can be no denying the emphasis that is placed on polls.
For those who enjoy tight political races, a recent Associated Press-Ipsos national poll shows the race to win the Republican nomination is quite close.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani led the poll with 24 percent. He was followed by former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson who had 19 percent and Arizona Sen. John McCain who had 15 percent.
The margin of error in the poll was 4.5 percent so it is possible the race is tighter than the numbers reported.
Or, then again, maybe not.
I have always been uncomfortable with national polls like this one. National polls are meant to reflect the percentage of votes a candidate would receive if the election was held on that day.
However, this is not the way we elect a president or the way Republicans and Democrats select a nominee. When it comes to the race to win a party's nomination, it is a state-by-state process in which the candidates win delegates to their party's convention next summer based on their performance in each state.
These national polls remove the state-by-state element from their findings. These polls are just a sample of voter opinions chosen from people around the nation.
Because of this, general national polls like the AP-Ipsos poll mentioned above cannot always be a reliable measurement of how a candidate stands in the race.
For example, in that poll former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was a distant fourth with only seven percent. Based on this, it would appear that Romney's campaign is taking on water and is having little success.
However, several polls in Iowa and New Hampshire show Romney is either leading or close to the lead in those states. This is especially important because these states are among the earliest to hold primaries or caucuses next year.
So which is it? Is the Romney campaign hopelessly adrift like the AP-Ipsos poll implies? Or is the campaign poised for great success early in next year's primary season?
If nothing else, successful presidential campaigns are about momentum. If Romney performs well in Iowa and New Hampshire, there is no doubt he will be considered among the top Republican candidates.
From there, it will be anybody's guess as to how he will do.
However, based on the findings of the AP-Ipsos poll, the perception that is being communicated to the general public is that Romney is currently an also-ran in the campaign.
If I were a Romney campaign representative, I would be hopping mad about how much airplay this poll got. Perception is reality, and if the perception becomes that Romney has no chance, then the leads he has in Iowa and New Hampshire could melt away.
This is just one example of how powerful poll results can be. We are a results-driven society, and in a long political campaign, it is sometimes difficult to measure the results of all the activity we see. Polls can be a good resource to measure results, but we must be careful how we use them.
America is a sports crazy nation so perhaps polls are so popular because it acts as a scoreboard. We love frontrunners, but at the same time, we cheer for the underdog. Polls definitely play a role in identifying who those folks are.
Despite the dangers of misusing polls, don't expect to see a decrease in them anytime soon. They are a staple of the media's political coverage, and campaigns can't seem to make a major decision without consulting them.
In a way, politicians have become slaves to polls. They are so afraid of making decisions that could hurt their numbers that they become tentative.
I don't know about anyone else, but the last trait that I want in a president is for him (or her) to be tentative.
Boldness is necessary in our leaders.