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Political polling: One major political science advance

By By Steve Flowers
One of the major advances in modern political science is the preponderance of and accuracy of political polling. It is not an exact science, but it has gotten pretty close. If you see a poll done by a reputable polling firm you can bank on it in today’s surveying efficiency.
However, you need to remember two caveats. First, the poll will have a 3 to 5 percent margin of error. The more survey participants interviewed the lower the margin of error. The second caveat is that a poll is a picture or snapshot of the moment that the poll was taken. Therefore, it may be a week later when the election is held and people, believe it or not, do change their minds during a week’s time. The more adamant or ardent voters will not move, but most voters are not that locked in to a certain candidate and many do not decide until the day before. They truly are undecided or some ad or activity has caused them to move away from one candidate and on to another over the last week of the campaign.
These people are monitored by what’s called a “tracking poll.” They are called constantly the last few days of an election or primary to see where they are moving. These tracking polls are indeed very accurate and they tell you what is happening at the moment. Remember, polls are snapshots of the moment. Campaigns will use tracking polls to see what is happening daily and it will also tell them what issue or development is moving voters. They will adjust their ads to exploit this trend. The campaign pollster and media person work congruently to be able to move quickly with these voters and tell them what they want to hear.
Another truism in today’s politics is that negative ads are effective. People complain about the negative advertising and attack ads, but surveys reveal that 80% of ads are negative today. Candidates use them because they work. There is a direct correlation to a television spot running for a day attacking a candidate and that candidates numbers dropping the same day.
This brings me to discussions of a polling technique which is not really polling, but old fashioned rumor mongering. There is a political tool known as push polling. It has been around for about 20 years and has replaced the old fashioned runners that politicians once used to spread unsavory rumors about their opponent by word of mouth through country stores, barbershops and beauty parlors.
Today’s push polls are more effective and hit their mark through scientific maneuvers. The push poll is designed to find voters that are on the fence and who might be easily swayed by a personal attack. Many times the attack on the candidate is very personal and could not be used over the airwaves because it also does not have to be totally accurate.
The surveyors used to perform the scurrilous attacks are not really pollsters, but hucksters. They will disguise these polls under a bogus innocuous name like, “Let the Voters Decide” polling firm. However, they are paid for by another campaign to pull down their opponent’s favorable poll numbers. Therefore, a push poll is not really a poll and the primary purpose of this negative campaign tactic is not to measure public opinion but to change it. For example, the caller under the guise of being a pollster will ask the vulnerable voter, “if you knew Candidate X was a communist sympathizer would you be more likely or less likely to vote for him?”
There is evidence that push polling was used extensively in the early primary states in the Republican primaries, with Romney being the worst recipient. He was his by Huckabee in Iowa and McCain in New Hampshire on his Mormon religious affiliation. In turn, Romney hit Huckabee on his record as Governor of Arkansas with push polls suggesting Huckabee was soft on illegal immigrants and also on crime with over 1000 pardons for hardened criminals in Arkansas.
It looks like push polling and negative campaigning are here to stay, because they work. However, polling itself has a major hurdle to overcome both presently and in future years. Pollsters cannot call cell phones because they cannot ascertain these numbers. It is estimated that currently 15% of all phone users only possess and use a cell phone. This percentage is even higher for young people. This is a trend that is projected to continue, yet it is amazing how accurate polling continues to be with this mounting problem.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 70 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the State Legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.