When polls are used to shape rather than measure public opinion

The following is an excerpt of my latest article in The Hill.

From what I can tell, pollsters are generally fairly stick-to-the-facts folks. They deal in facts and statistics. But there’s something important to remember. They have clients. Their clients are often news organizations. These news organizations, not polling experts, are the ones that come up with their own takeaways, headlines, analyses and context — or lack thereof — for the polls they commission. And, as we have seen, they may have their own idea of how they want things to come out.

That’s where I think polls have now become thought of as tools to shape opinion, rather than to measure it.

While looking into this phenomenon in 2016, I contacted a number of polling groups. I knew that they “weight” and adjust their samples to make them reflect certain demographics of the U.S. population. In simple terms, if their sample ends up with too many young people, they assign greater weight to responses from older people. The methods they use to do so vary and are arcane, to say the least. For example, ABC states that it “adopted iterative weighting, also known as raking or rim weighting, in which the sample is weighted sequentially to Census targets one variable at a time, continuing until the optimum distribution is achieved.”

But one of the most interesting things I learned had to do with one big factor for which they typically don’t “weight” or adjust. It’s one that I think is arguably among the most important when it comes to polls measuring political issues: political affiliation. In other words, the national pollsters I spoke with told me that if they end up interviewing significantly more Democrats than Republicans — which is often the case — they don’t necessarily adjust the results to try to make the sample reflective of the U.S. voting population.

When I dug into a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll,
I found some interesting nuggets that went unreported. 
As usual, the sample was Democrat-heavy: 29 percent of respondents who gave their affiliation were Democrat, compared to 23 percent Republican and 37 percent independent.

Sharyl Attkisson in The Hill


Read the entire story at The Hill by clicking the link below.


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3 thoughts on “When polls are used to shape rather than measure public opinion”

  1. After what I learned about polling, as Miss. Attkisson points out, in the 2016 election, I view polls with a very skeptical eye.

  2. I never answer polls although I have been tempted to reply dishonestly
    I found a polling call on my answering machine recently
    A woman’s voice and the call was mid day almost guaranteed to reach mostly women.
    Being a recorded call with electronic response there is no method of determining demographic

    If you support a woman’s right to choose how to control her own body press 1
    If you support repealing Roe v Wade press 2

    It was an obvious emotional appeal to women and I await the release of the overwhelming ” choice” results.

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