Special Report: Can We Trust Polling Numbers?

(AP file)
(AP file)

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) – A local university professor says voters need to be aware that political polls can vary greatly, and some surveys are either sales pitches or biased attempts to change their vote.

Professor Quentin Kidd of Christopher Newport University says it’s important to know that not all polls are equal. CNU conducts ongoing regional and statewide polling, hiring more than 100 people to call voters and talk with them about their preferences on candidates and issues. In other words, no robocalls.

Professor Kidd says in order to get an accurate poll you need to check several boxes.

“A live person, calling persons who have cell phones and landlines, and generating numbers by some random draw from a pool of numbers, that’s the gold standard. But not everybody does that.”

Federal law prohibits a computer from calling a mobile phone. Kidd says some national polling firms do use auto-dialers to determine voter preferences, so they’re reaching only landlines.

“People who have landlines tend to be older, they tend to be whiter, and they tend to be more suburban.”

The pollsters doing landline-only surveys must then use a technique called “weighting” to make their results more representative. Kidd says some polling isn’t really polling at all. He says beware of online surveys, which are just click-bait marketing in disguise.

“Those surveys are not really designed to gauge public opinion as they are designed to drive traffic.”

Other methods of polling aren’t really polling at all. They’re attempts to get you to change your mind – and your vote.

“We have this horrible, horrible trend called push polling,” Kidd warns. “A campaign or a campaign’s consulting firm will call with the intention of pushing you either away or toward a candidate.”

Push-polling looks to create innuendo and spread rumors by making them the premise of a loaded question. “Would you be more or less likely to support John McCain if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate child?” is an example from the 2000 Republican primary season. If you get one of those, just hang up.