We live in the age of polling. It does not matter that using the word polling is actually a misnomer, the correct term is survey. We are surrounded by polling, pollsters, and other creatures that go bump in the night.
Surveys are measurement devices. They are predictive devices, and should never be used to influence. They should also not be used as a substitute for accurate and detailed journalism.
Using surveys as measurement devices for politics have been in vogue since 1948. They have never been truly accurate as predictive devices. The attempts to use as that always blows up in the candidates faces.
Republicans and Democrats have been using surveys for about the same amount of time. Until recently Republicans were always much better at using surveys then Democrats. It was mainly fueled by the two differing philosophies. Democrats used surveys as predictive tools. They wanted to know the head to head numbers. Republicans used surveys as devices to measure intensity.
I will give you the best example that I know. You the reader are going to be let in on a secret.
In 1976 Ronald Reagan decided to primary Gerald Ford. From the very beginning it was a tough uphill battle. The entire Republican establishment was opposed to Reagan. The so called conservative columnists were the first to jump on the “let’s destroy Reagan” bandwagon.
The attacks were vicious, and unrelenting. He was called senile, too old, a fake conservative, a lousy governor, an opportunist, (any of this sound familiar?) a crook, well you get the idea now, and those were the Republicans.
The attacks were highly successful. At the beginning of the campaign Reagan lost primary after primary and caucus after caucus. Finally the entire campaign came down to North Carolina. The pundits and everyone else declared this was do or die time for Reagan.
Nancy Reagan had had enough of losing and persuaded her husband to run a blind survey with another company as well as the one they were using. The surveys were the same but the second pollster convinced the Reagans to add one question. What makes you angry was the question added to the survey.
The results came back and literally everyone’s jaw dropped when they saw the results of that question. Throughout the campaign people were queried about what they felt were the most compelling issues. Each survey came with the obligatory jobs, economy, peace, crime, education and the like.
What were they angry about? The question said that 84% of the respondents were angry about giving away the Panama Canal. At no time had the Panama Canal been listed as one of the important issues.
From that moment forward the Reagan campaign had one theme, the Panama Canal, and how Reagan would never give it away. He never lost another primary. He was too far behind to take the nomination from Ford, but it positioned him to be the next President in 1980.
It was our ability to measure intensity that prevailed then and all the way till the pollsters started working for both sides. The first one was Dick Morris who helped Clinton.
Surveys are measuring devices. Do not become too enamored with them or those that use them. Surveys are also wrong more then they are right. In 2004 on the day of the voting only one company had it right, only one.
Also just to let you know if you see a survey and it shows a deviation above plus or minus 3.5 then that survey is statistically invalid.