- A few weeks ago furious protesters pounded on the windows
of the head office of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, a respectable
in the northern US state of Minnesota, whose journalists aren't used to
being the targets of rage and derision. Rob Daves, the paper's pollster,
saw the crowd gathering on the front steps as he came out for his lunchtime
jog. He didn't realise why they were there and went off on his run. By
the time he got back, they were gone, which was just as well because much
of the rage and derision was directed at him.
- 'Hey, hey, ho, ho, Rob Daves has got to go!' the
pickets chanted. 'Liberals!' they screamed at hacks leaving for a bite
to eat. It may not sound much of an insult to you, but in conservative
America alleging that journalists are liberals is almost as wounding as
alleging that they are communists, which the demonstrators proceeded to
do when they switched to the chant of 'Star and Sickle, you're in a
- The Star and Tribune had a run a poll saying that John
Kerry had a 9 per cent lead over George W Bush in Minnesota. Rival polls
claimed the race was tied. The paper's editor had endorsed Kerry, and the
Republicans believed they had uncovered a liberal plot to convince their
supporters that there was no point turning out to vote.
- Over in New York, moveon.org, an alliance of two million
Bush loathers who, like the Minnesota Republicans, are unlikely to get
through the tension of election night without a nervous collapse, paid
for an attack ad in the New York Times. 'Why Does America's Top Pollster
Keep Getting it Wrong?' it wanted to know. Gallup's polls, used by CNN
and USA Today, had given Bush a 14 point lead but other polls conducted
at the same time put it at around 3 per cent. The Kerryites noted that
George Gallup Jr, son of the poll's founder and director of its research
centre, was a born-again Christian of the nosiest type who had said earlier
this year that 'the most profound purpose of polls is to see how people
are responding to God'.
- 'We thought the purpose is to faithfully and factually
report public opinion,' moveon.org retorted with a sniff.
- You get the picture. Religious fundamentalists in the
polling industry back God and Bush and do nothing to dispel the helpful
illusion that the President is invincible.
- The polling companies dismissed the protests as
allegations from an angry campaign. But the demonstrators were on to
How can one poll give Kerry a nine point lead in Minnesota and others give
him no lead at all? Why do CNN viewers hear that Bush is cruising to a
landslide victory, while he's in the tightest race imaginable on other
channels? Why for that matter has Labour's poll share in the past month
bounced between 28 per cent and 39 per cent according to which newspaper
your read? Are any of these figures true or false? And if newspapers and
broadcasters can't say they're true, why do they pretend that they are
facts on a par with the statement 'Yasser Arafat was admitted to hospital
- The pollsters can't all be right, but they may all be
wrong, and a few American journalists have the guts to admit it.
- Sceptics in the media have always seen opinion polls
as crooked: not as deceitful as horoscopes, but way short of the exacting
standards met by the racing tipsters. Where the Minnesota Republicans and
the New York liberals get it wrong is to assume the crookedness is the
result of political bias. To be sure, pollsters are a part of the process
which sets 'the agenda' and determines which political positions are
and which politicians are 'credible', but most are honest by their own
lights. It's just that their lights are dimming with each passing
- Last week the Washington Post 's pollster Richard Morin
wrote a long, despairing piece whose headline 'Don't Ask Me' said it all.
In Britain, the campaign polls may have underestimated Tory support in
the last three elections, but the exit polls, which have far more money
behind them, were reasonably close in 1997 and 2001. Morin noted that in
the US, even the exit polls were a shambles.
- The reason why pollsters fear their racket is 'on the
way to extinction' is that the public is fed up with being pestered by
hucksters. If you think about it, talking to a polling company is an odd
way to behave. Strangers ask you to give them time and personal information
for nothing so that they can profit from it. Once the pollsters had few
competitors, now everyone's at it. In the vast United States the only way
to sample the electorate is by phone.
- But the polling companies aren't the only people cold
calling at the precise moment when the dinner has boiled over and the
nappy exploded. Telemarketers infest the country. To combat them, there
are call screening systems and attempts in state legislatures to make cold
calling illegal. Those who can't stop the pollsters getting through are
fighting back with ingenious technologies.
- The Washington Post told the sad story of Rick Klaastad,
a market researcher for a polling company in Oregon, who dialled an elderly
man on his contact list. 'Apparently he has some electronic device attached
to the phone and the next thing I hear was this loud, painful sound. It
was as about as bad as it gets - imagine turning an FM stereo up full blast
with a really good set of speakers. It bruised my eardrum.'
- Huge numbers refuse to talk to pollsters. Morin found
that 'in some surveys fewer than one in five calls produces a completed
interview - raising doubts whether such polls accurately reflect the views
of the public or merely report the opinions of stay-at-home Americans who
are too bored, too infirm or too lonely to hang up.'
- To put it at its politest, I think it's fair to say that
American polls aren't want scientists call random samples.
- Nor are they in Britain. Whenever the media is forced
to ask whether findings that 57.2 per cent of the population don't trust
Tony Blair or 12.8 per cent of twentysomething women have given up
stands after a three-in-a-bed romp with a two-timing love rat are true,
it always quotes pollsters. What journalists neglect to mention is that
the polling industry makes its real money from business, not newspapers
or television. If CEOs began to suspect that the beguilingly precise
on the existence of niche markets were false, tens of millions of pounds
would be lost.
- If you leave the self-interested defenders of the
behind and turn to objective outsiders such as Roger Jowell, who runs the
British Social Attitudes Survey, you find that they have been saying for
years that opinion polls aren't random samples.
- He explains the persistent failure to get Tory support
right in campaign polls by the fact that a sizeable number of Conservatives
think that time is money and don't see why they should give something for
nothing. They brush past the market researcher standing in the street with
a tight smile. Labour supporters and Liberal Democrats are kinder people
who are more likely to help out a stranger.
- Whether they will continue to do so is doubtful. Commerce
is crowding into private space via junk mail, cold calls, texted adverts
and the street confrontations arranged by those lovable charities. Cold
calling has prejudiced Americans against telephone polling. Chugging and
other forms of aggressive begging are likely to prejudice a fair chunk
of the British against the poor woman in the shopping centre trying to
scratch a living wage from Mori.
- A lot flows from the decline of polling. First, readers
who are close to tears because most US polls give Bush a slight lead can
relax until election night. Only two of the 11 final national polls were
right in 2000 - and there's no reason to believe that that dismal record
will be bettered. (Conversely, Bush supporters - a minority among you,
I suspect - shouldn't be too cocksure, defeat or a landslide is as likely
as a narrow win.)
- Second, all the focus-group policies the government uses
to please the electorate may not only be wrong in principle but a failure
in practice because the public may very well not be pleased in the
- Finally, if the next election is as messy as a few of
us suspect, with three-cornered contests taking place across the country
and voters deciding whether to vote tactically against Blair or the Tories,
the polls will be all important to people who want to work out what the
consequences of their vote will be. They should know in advance that
a fair chance that the polls will be tosh.
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