Most people think opinion polls are pretty easy. Somebody asks you questions, mostly over the phone, and you answer them. Simple. A lot of people also take poll results as gospel. There are polls about nearly everything. Probably the most well known are political polls. There seems to be a zillion of them and close to an election the results of one poll or the other seem to be made public daily. Then the media analyzes them into oblivion. Even the candidates themselves sponsor their own private polls.
Plenty of journalists (I use that term loosely) and pundits, plus individual campaigns, use polls to support their contentions and positions on the issues, as well as their popularity and place in the race. What many people fail to consider is the fact that poll results are statistics, and as such can be manipulated. People and groups with a political axe to grind, a candidate to elect or an issue to support often succumb to the temptation of doctoring, fudging, weighting their polls, using leading questions and deceptive phrasing. This gets them results that are more favorable to their goals, which results are then broadcast in as many media outlets as possible to make people think so and so is behind by 4 points instead of 2 or has 80% approval instead of 65%.
How do these pollsters do their manipulating? Probably the obvious and recognizable method is the push poll, so named because it is designed to push you in a specific direction. This kind of poll borders on the criminal, at least in my mind. It’s not even really a poll, in the legitimate sense. It’s more like a telemarketing call, short and to the point, designed to reach as many voters as possible in a short time. It will start off innocuously enough with simple questions like “are you registered to vote?” or “do you know who these candidates are”. They then quickly move into the push questions which are misleading at best and patently, cruelly deceiving at worst. They use suggestion and innuendo to create doubt in the voters mind, normally about the character of a candidate. These questions are cleverly worded not to be lies and get the message across powerfully.
To exaggerate, but not by much, they ask questions such as “if you knew so and so voted to burn all black cats in Alabama to death would you be more or less inclined to vote for them? There is always the implication that this candidate is hiding something awful that makes them totally unfit for office. The questions are speculations and thus are not legally slanderous. But they sure are effective. Push polls often come very close to the day of an election when a candidate doesn’t have time to respond and refute the faux accusations. The giveaways that you are being subjected to a push poll are the clear speculative markers. These assure the questions aren’t directly accusatory. Be on the lookout for questions that start “if you knew” and “if I told you” or “what if so and so”. If there’s an “if”, it’s a push. Push polls are like defense attorneys. They try to create doubt in the mind of those making a very important decision. And like defense attorneys all they need is a little doubt to flip jurors, i.e. voters, and win.
Other, perhaps less creepy, but more subtle and not so obvious tactics include the small sample size, where the pollster uses the smallest number of polled voters that can legitimately be said to be “statistically significant” and within the standard plus or minus 3% deviation. Frankly, with that small a sample size plus or minus 3% makes the poll virtually meaningless in cases where the race is expected to be close. A small sample size also makes it easier to skew the demographics of the poll by calling at certain times of the day, or by saying a strong republican is a moderate because he voted for a democrat once in college, etc.
One might not think that deceptive political polling is a big deal but it enrages me. It is malevolent trickery at it’s finest, done extremely well by smart people who are paid well. The type of manipulation which enrages me the most is the most subtle and I believe most effective way of getting misleading results. This happens when there are intentionally badly worded or constructed questions or questions with no good answers. An example of a badly worded question is “was your congressman’s vote on xyz bill good for the people of your district?” If your congressman voted yes on a bad bill neither a yes or no answer is really indicative of your position on the matter. An example of a question without an answer is “do you think congress should cut funding for early childhood programs or all day kindergarten.” If you favor funding both of those things, strongly, being made to choose between them makes you disingenuous.
I have gotten to the point in my life where I refuse to answer certain questions on polls, even if they are from legitimate pollsters. And I tell the person administering the poll that it’s a bad, misleading question, not that that will change anything. Even if this stuff does make my blood boil, people are right when they say it’s not a major issue, compared to the litany of truly existential threats to the planet. But it is yet another in a long long line of manipulations designed to keep us divided and diverted.
Heaven forbid we suddenly wake up and realize we only have the illusion of democracy.