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Leading questions, bad sampling skew some political polls

More than just the candidates are trying to persuade voters with the 2012 presidential election less than three weeks away.
Although some major polling organizations are trustworthy, some private organizations are releasing poll results to the public that favor one political party over the other.
Erik Nisbet, Ohio State assistant professor of communication and political science, said there is potential for people to be manipulated by poll results.
“Sometimes people use these types of polls for political purposes when they use questions that are biased in some ways, questions that prompt people to answer them in some ways to basically reach what they hope are conclusions they want for their own political purposes or social purposes,” Nisbet said.
He said the most reliable polls are those conducted by telephone or in person. He also said people need to pay attention to the methodology of the polls, such as who they polled, how they polled them and how they sampled them.
Nisbet, who is actively involved with the American Association for Public Opinion Research, said people need to be on the lookout for computerized voices over the phone as well. These types of polls are flawed because they only poll those people who actually answer the phone.
Organizations that can help people understand what to look for in polls and surveys include AAPOR, which, according to its website, is the leading association of public opinion and survey research professionals.
Niraj Antani, communications director for OSU College Republicans, said biased polls can be very dangerous.
“They can sway the public by doing inaccurate samples or oversampling Democrats or oversampling Republicans,” he said. “People shouldn’t make their decision based on polls.”
Michael Flannagan, communications director for OSU College Democrats, said some polls are undeniably biased.
“I do think there are polling people and polling locations on both sides that ask leaning questions or ask in a way that creates a bias,” Flannagan said. “I also think there are some pretty reputable polls out there and actually do try to find out what people think.”
Jacob Casenhiser, a third-year in strategic communication, said he thinks citizens need to understand what the issues are before contributing their thoughts to polls.
“I think in terms of looking at those polls, if you’re going to be a citizen that’s voting, you should be able to figure out on your own what the stances are and stuff like that, rather than being swayed by those polls,” Casenhiser said.
Casenhiser said he looks at Gallup polls and considers them to be the most accurate.
The best advice Nisbet said he could give to people is to view polls as a “snapshot” that might not fully represent public opinion on an issue.
“Educate yourself on what makes a good poll versus a bad poll in general, and don’t get too excited either in a positive or negative way about the poll results of any one poll because that could be off; there’s always a margin of error,” Nisbet said. “One poll might show one thing one week and show another thing the following week, so what you want to do is look at the overall trend over time to really evaluate what’s going on in a campaign.”
Nisbet also said people should be honest with themselves, and not disagree with a poll result just because it varies from their viewpoint.
“If you pick on the poll simply because you disagree with its findings versus pick on the poll because they did it poorly or it’s biased in some way, that’s also something that you have to check with yourself as well,” Nisbet said.

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