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Are Polls Really Magic?

Comment

With the glut of debate stories safely behind us until human beings actually cast votes in Iowa on Jan. 3, the media now shift their full concentration to what really counts: polls.

Polling drives our political process far more than debates do. Debates are just the candidates yakking in real time.

Polls are predictions of the future. They are crystal balls. They are magic.

Pollsters try to deny this, humbly murmuring about how their magic is a mere "snapshot in time." But we don't believe this.

Pollsters are wizards, shamans, diviners. They toss numbers around the way astragalomancers once tossed bones to foretell events to come. (The name comes from the Greek astragalos, meaning "knucklebone." But you knew that.)

Increasingly, however, pollsters find it difficult to get people to talk to them. This should not be a surprise. Pollsters call us during inconvenient times when they expect us to be home (the dinner hour, for example) and then can ask all sorts of personal questions about our age, sex, religion, party affiliation, income and whom we intend to vote for.

I have never been called by a political pollster and don't know anybody who has, but I know some pollsters, who assure me they don't make the numbers up, and I believe them.

Pollsters, or rather the phone-bankers who make call after all (or computers that make robo-call after robo-call), do get people to talk to them. Not vast numbers of people, but pollsters do not require vast numbers.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, which is highly respected, tells us that "Gingrich and Romney are each favored by 30 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents."

Also, the "survey shows President Obama receiving his highest approval rating since March ... (and) the number who disapprove of his overall performance has dipped below 50 percent for the first time this fall."

We are a nation of nearly 313 million people. So how many people did the pollsters actually speak to? If you have extremely good eyes, you can find the answer in tiny type at the bottom of a chart: The Post-ABC poll was conducted by phone "among a random sample of 1,005 adults."

That represents 0.0003 percent of the nation at large. (The number of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents was an even smaller sample of 395 people.)

The poll does not tell us how many are registered voters, though it does say in a sidebar story: "The president leads a potential race against former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) by 51 to 43 percent among registered voters — in part because of an eight-point advantage among independents."

So the poll must have spoken to registered voters and independents, but we don't know how many.

And, frankly, who cares? Most people do not read the fine print.

Just as most people, including most journalists, have no idea what the "margin of sampling error" really means, though most good polls tell us that. (The Post-ABC margin was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for all adults.)

As I said, this poll has a very good reputation, and I "believe" the results in that I believe they were calculated carefully and (unlike some partisan or campaign polls) without any agenda.

But in the vast, murky world known as reality, are Gingrich and Mitt Romney really tied 30-30? And, if they are, what different does it make? The primary is not a national contest, but a series of state contests by which the winning candidate amasses a majority of the approximately 2,288 pledged and unpledged delegates to the Republican National Convention.

Does Obama really lead Gingrich by 8 percentage points in a (currently) imaginary matchup?

I dunno. Sounds right to me. But I am an even smaller sample than 0.0003 percent.

Gingrich's drop in the polls — one shows him in third place in Iowa behind Ron Paul and Romney — and Obama's rise have become big media talking points over the last few days.

There is little real political analysis anymore. Instead, there are journalists who read polls and try to explain the results: Newt's drop? Attack ads by his opponents are damaging him, people are learning more about him and don't like what they are learning.

Obama's rise? The 21st paragraph of a sidebar story to the Post-ABC poll contains a figure that may be of critical importance: "The new survey finds that most Americans are optimistic about their personal finances, even though gloom continues about prospects for the national economy."

People who are personally optimistic are the kind of people who do not change horses in midstream, especially if they feel the stream is strewn with rocks.

Is this how "most Americans" — based on a survey of 1,005 of them — really feel?

Dunno. But the polls are changing the prism through which the media — both mainstream and social — see events, which changes the national conversation.

You can challenge the accuracy of polls. But you can't challenge their influence.

To find out more about Roger Simon, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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