Alex Massie

Pollster Wars

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Ooops. I meant to mention Mike Crowley's entertaining New Republic piece on the polling wars. It's a fun, breezy read that's well worth your time:

Shock Poll - blared a Drudge Report headline on December 26, 2007, just one week before the Iowa caucus. At a time when most pollsters were showing a dead heat in Iowa, this new survey found Hillary Clinton with a 15-point lead over Barack Obama. But the only shock, as it turned out, was that someone could have gotten it so wrong: Obama would beat Clinton in Iowa by eight points. The offender was the New Hampshire-based American Research Group. ARG is a black sheep of the polling world; I repeatedly heard it singled out for scorn by other pollsters. They complain that it releases little information about its sponsors and its methodology--for a time, there was even confusion about whether ARG relied on automated surveys or human operators. "ARG is a mystery," Leve says. "They release almost nothing about what they do. It's possible they don't even make phone calls." ("There's plenty of disclosure," says ARG's Dick Bennett. "I guess people are into trashing.")


Overall, response rates have been declining for years. And, this season, race and gender have added tricky new variables. In short, Leve's success is hard to explain-- affirming a postmodern sense that methodology no longer ensures accuracy more than instinct and dumb luck. The irony is that this perception, one that critics use to deride polling, is now widespread even among pollsters themselves.


Leve has none of this sentimentality for his own industry. In fact, he can be downright dismissive of our national obsession with polling. When a surprising number appears in the news, he says, he often fields calls from his excitable mother. "I pick up the phone and she says, 'Hey, I just heard-- McCain's now in front!' I say, 'Mom, ignore it!' I often tell people to pay no attention whatsoever. There are an awful lot of numbers coming out that mean absolutely nothing."

Indeed so. Whole thing here.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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