BEAM: Those Political Polls Aren’t All That Accurate

If you don’t think newspaper comic strips imitate real life, take another look at “The Wizard of Id” strip that ran in Wednesday’s American Press. It says a lot about the current state of political polling in this country.

A messenger tells the king of the mythical Kingdom of Id, “Here it is, Sire! All the latest poll numbers on all the hot-button issues.”

The king is shown scribbling something, and Sir Rodney the Chicken-Hearted, the king’s chief knight, asks, “What are you doing, Sire?”

“Forming today’s opinions,” the king replied. In other words, he was reworking the numbers to get the results he wanted.

Anyone who has seen the latest polling on next year’s U.S. Senate race in Louisiana or the recent surveys about Gov. Bobby Jindal’s performance probably said the comic strip confirmed their suspicions. Some polls are suspect because they are done by political organizations promoting their candidates.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, are the best-known candidates in the 2014 Senate race, but there is expected to be a third contender. He is Robert Maness of Madisonville, another Republican and retired Air Force colonel who has backing from some tea party and conservative groups. They don’t think Cassidy is conservative enough for their tastes.

Polls released by two GOP firms indicate Landrieu has a tough race on her hands. OnMessage, pollsters who have ties to Jindal, showed Landrieu with a four-point lead on Cassidy — 45 to 41 percent. Harper Polling, a new Republican polling organization, had Cassidy in the lead — 47 to 45 percent. Democratic polling released a day later showed Landrieu with a 10-point lead — 50 to 40 percent.

Comments from the candidates and their spokespersons make for enjoyable reading. To hear them tell it, the polls either prove their candidate is doing well or they don’t really mean much if he or she isn’t leading the pack.

Cassidy was asked about the Democratic polls showing Landrieu with a wider lead.

“Those polls don’t matter,” he said. “I’ll just tell you that, and it’s fun to talk about. The way I look at it, as long as we work hard on the issues, you have to trust that, at some point, good policy is good politics. The polls will take care of themselves.”

Responses to Jindal’s polling are even more entertaining. The governor hit a new low back in April. Southern Media & Opinion Research said his approval rating dropped from 51 percent last October to 38 percent in March. The latest polling has him at either 50 or 35 percent.

Kyle Plotkin, a Jindal spokesman, said in April, “We care more about the unemployment numbers than approval numbers, and right now, we still have too many Louisianians unemployed or underemployed.”

Give Plotkin an “A” for skillfully redirecting bad news in a more positive direction.

The Advocate said the most recent poll by OnMessage had Jindal at a job approval rating of 50 percent. Harper Polling found that 35 percent had a favorable opinion of the governor.

Curt Anderson, an OnMessage partner, said the governor’s numbers were never bad.

“There is now a cottage industry of so-called pollsters who use ‘auto dial’ technology because it is so inexpensive,” Anderson said. “They tend to be way off in all kinds of directions.”

Bernie Pinsonat of Southern Media & Opinion agreed, but said his company doesn’t use that technology. Pinsonat said the numbers his poll documented were verified by other polls at the time.

“He works for Jindal,” Pinsonat said of Anderson. “I do not. I would expect him to defend his client.”

Even some of the more respected polling organizations have had problems. Gallup was off in the 2012 presidential election. Its final pre-election poll had 49 percent for Republican nominee Mitt Romney and 48 percent for President Obama. The actual results were 51 percent for Obama and 47 percent for Romney.

A Gallup spokesman said the problem was caused by a variety of defects in the way the company conducted its surveys. Obama’s re-election organization did a better job. It helped him win by concentrating on the swing states, appealing to women and minorities and by registering and getting voters to the polls.

The New York Times said some of the most accurate firms were those that conducted their polls online. The newspaper said it may not “be long before Google, not Gallup, is the most trusted name in polling.”

Pollsters may not be doctoring the results like the mythical king of Id, but Americans have good reason to be a little wary of political polls. Outcomes have a lot to do with the people contacted, the questions used and the way they are asked and the motives and political connections of some pollsters.

Enjoy reading about poll results, but don’t place any bets on their accuracy, especially when they are done far in advance of the actual election.

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