Sunday, October 23, 2011

Polls, polls, polls

We are slightly more than one year away from the next presidential election, and people seeking that office will be using every tool available to measure how they are doing.

Polls are a common tool used by candidates and other outside organizations to measure their success. Since President Barak Obama is not facing opposition for the Democratic nomination, much of the polling focus is on the Republican candidates right now.

In the last few months, we have seen wild swings when measuring the field of candidates. Since the beginning, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been a GOP frontrunner while others have surged and fallen.

During the summer, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann found some success then faded when Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race. Perry has floundered recently in the polls, and Herman Cain has taken his place as the primary challenger to Romney.

Will Cain have this same success next month? Who knows? The presidential race is a marathon. This means it is too early to discount anybody who is running.

However, we have to be very careful regarding how much influence we allow polls to have over us. As a society, we like receiving updates in short and definite terms. Therefore, polls are attractive to us because they give us an update that shows who is winning and who is not.

Despite this, polls can be misleading. The methodology an organization uses while compiling data is critical, but we hear little discussion about how a poll is tabulated. All we hear are the final results.

Because of this, it is necessary that we take a close look at who takes a poll. News organizations often sponsor these polls, and as we know, some news organizations have bias when it comes to politics.

Therefore, if we read a poll sponsored by MSNBC that is hurtful to a Republican candidate, we need to remember MSNBC's politics lean to the left. Does this necessarily mean the poll cannot be trusted? No, but it is one of the many factors we must consider when digesting information.

The same applies to an outfit like Fox News. Fox leans to the right, and that must be acknowledged when analyzing data about the president or other Democratic leaders.

Many of the polls we are currently seeing are national polls that measure a candidate's popularity. While these polls may have some merit in providing us the pulse of the race, they fall way short when providing information about a candidate's electability.

These general polls are not useful because this is not how we elect the president. We elect a chief executive through the Electoral College. If we genuinely want to use polls to determine who is a frontrunner in the race, we have to use a more specific approach.

The easiest way would be to take polls in all states. Pollsters could give respondents in each state a choice between the president and a specific Republican challenger to measure the strength of both sides. Based on those results, assign the number of electoral votes each state has to the candidate who led in the poll.

Adding up those results will give us a much better idea who is a player in the race.

Most of the polls we see now are not doing this. People who perform these polls appear content to only provide a snapshot of what the field is like today.

This is not necessarily bad. Snapshots have their place, but we have to remember that they do not tell the complete story.

The unfortunate fact is that many are using these snapshots to determine who the most qualified candidate in the race is. And that is a little scary.

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