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Omdahl: Polling brings vigor, vitriol

By Staff | Oct 24, 2014

As expected, the conduct of a poll on candidates and ballot measures threw new vigor into an otherwise waning election campaign. In a few days, we will hear more argument when the election returns deviate from the poll results.

While Gallup and Pew have reduced polling to a science, other pollsters in the country still struggle with the sponginess inherent in the process

As a rule, a sample of 500 is adequate to provide reliable results within a range of five percent plus or minus. In most cases, this is true but pollsters often forget to note that this range of error is true in only 95 percent of the time. In the other five percent, the poll is wrong.

The Forum Communications poll was criticized by the Democrats because the poll reported that only 19 percent of those interviewed claimed to be of that political persuasion. They thought more Democrats should have been added to the sample.

But a random sample is a random sample. To start adding and subtracting groups destroys the randomness of the sample. We would need to see other current poll results to determine whether or not Democrats were underrepresented.

One problem in political polls is identifying likely voters. After all, they are the people who really count in an election. All pollsters develop some screening techniques to keep nonvoters out of the poll.

Even the best of screening questions are not fool-proof. A major problem is that interviewees misrepresent the truth about their voting habits and intentions. So part of the game is getting the liars out of the sample.

We need to keep in mind that polls are simply snapshots of opinion at the time they are taken. In the case of the Forum Communications poll, this shot was snapped around October 1 five weeks before the election. That is one reason the poll will vary from the election results.

Because the poll was taken early, it reflected a considerable number of undecided voters. In partisan races, the poll figures will have some staying power since a basic number of the respondents will remain loyal to their party’s candidates.

When it comes to measures, the commitment of interviewees will vary from measure to measure. Some of the measures have solid blocks of supporters deeply committed such as the personhood proposal that involves the religious doctrine of Catholic and Fundamentalist churches.

The poll shows that this measure has 50 percent support. Because of the strong commitment of the religious voting blocks, opponents of the measure will have a difficult time changing the numbers.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Measure No. 4. Except for the legislators who voted to put it on the ballot, this proposal restricting the use of the initiative and referendum has limited committed support one way or the other.

It will be up for grabs since very little has been said about the proposal, making it relatively unknown by the electorate. We can expect a lot of random voting on that issue so the poll figures on this issue may be off the mark.

The uninformed voter is a constant hazard when it comes to measures.

Even though some may be unhappy with the figures, the Forum Communications poll has been helpful in that it gave everyone some excitement about likely outcomes in an otherwise lackluster campaign.

With such a large number of measures on the ballot, stirring the electorate has been helpful in building public awareness of the issues.

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