Polls that are supposed to illuminate sometimes sow confusion instead

The political season brings out the best and worst in polling techniques, and there is no wonder that many are confused.

Recent news stories have shown Donald Trump way ahead of Sen. Ted Cruz in Iowa and also tied with him. Bernie Sanders may be ahead of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, and, then again, he may not be.

The very nature of the polls introduces error because the pollsters seek to learn the opinion of the public by obtaining information from very few. This type of inferential survey assumes the limited number of responses are typical of the larger group.

Such surveys are highly accurate when the group is uniform. The Gallup Organization can pretty well assess the public mood on an important issue by contacting a bit more than 1,000 persons. The simpler the question, the better the results.

Complicating the landscape are polls designed to produce a desired result.

Question: 1.) Should Americans act to stop global warming or 2.) should we all die in our beds.

Advocacy organizations produce these polls all the time to further their agendas.

The Iowa caucuses and Costa Rica’s municipal elections next month present another problem, limited participation. Minimal participation can confound polling results because surveyors do not really know which people actually will show up to vote.

Then there is lying. People have a tendency to stretch the truth when a surveyor asks them about a socially acceptable activity. And voting is socially acceptable.

A well-drafted survey will include some trap questions:

Question: Did you vote for 1.) Lincoln or 2.) Hoover in the last presidential election.

More and more the U.S. election scene is being clouded by the the extremes of the candidates. The primary process itself generates extremes, which encourage unrepresentative turnouts at the voting booths.  Pollsters have trouble compensating for this.

Hot-button issues like gay marriage, abortion, immigration, corporate income and nuclear war are some of the reasons candidates pander and why voters cast ballots.

The media encourages polling so commentators have something to fill air time or newspages.

As the candidates know, the important result is in the votes and not the polls.

Graphic shows turnout in last three municipal elections.

Graphic shows turnout in last three municipal elections.

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