Polling is an integral part of society today, especially within the United States. Every day citizens are inundated with the results of various polls and what the results of those polls mean. Polls, in fact, provide the best direct source of information about public opinion. The first known survey in the US was the Census of 1790. Although some survey research was conducted between 1790 and the 1900's, real growth of the industry came after World War II. Then, due to technological advances of the 1930's and 1940's, consumers had more and better products to choose from which required producers to learn more about and respond to consumer demand. This allowed for the growth of the marketing research industry, better know as the polling industry. Today polling is conducted in areas ranging from business to politics to the populations stances on social issues.
It is important to understand how polling is performed. A poll involves a survey of a sample of an overall population one is attempting to learn about. Although this sample is often small, it has been proven that a poll can be very accurate when applied to the overall population. These polls are often performed by a research company, over 2000 of which are located in the U.S. today. These firms can either specialize solely in data collection or the firm can be a full-service firm which designs the questionnaire, tabulates the answers, analyzes the tabulations, and reports the results. It is also important to point out that universities and colleges as well as local, state, and federal governments engage in polling.
There are two different types of polls that can be performed: the scientific poll and the unscientific poll. The unscientific poll consists of examples such as 900-number call in surveys, man on the street polls, some internet polls, and shopping mall polls. In these polls respondents often volunteer their answers, rather than being chosen, and only give the opinions of those surveyed rather than providing an accurate picture of the overall population. It is important to note that unscientific poll results can rarely be trusted and are merely useful as a means of entertainment. On the other hand scientific polls often can be trusted as accurate when being applied to the larger population. Scientific polls are typically performed over the telephone, through the mail, in person, or even through the internet. One of the major characteristics that makes a poll scientific is the fact the pollster identifies and seeks out respondents. This allows the pollster to create a sample that much more closely resembles the overall population being studied. Due to this fact, from this point onward only scientific polls and their characteristics will be discussed.
There are other important aspects of polling to consider. One should look at how many people were interviewed in the survey. All polls contain a margin of error which helps to indicate the accuracy of the poll when being applied to the larger population. Other things equal, the larger the sample, the smaller the margin of error. Another factor to consider is what area or group from which the respondents were chosen. For instance, in pre-primary or pre-election polls a survey of the entire population would not be very useful since turnout on election day is very likely to be quite a bit lower than the size of the overall population of an area. Therefore a poll is probably more useful and accurate when it is based on registered voters or likely voters. Another important characteristic to look into is when the poll was actually conducted. Events may have occurred since the poll was taken that would have altered the responses given in the survey. Although this can be the case it is important to note that poll results that are several weeks or months old may be perfectly valid, but one must make certain that events have not occurred that would have erased any newsworthy relationship to current public opinion.
An important issue to consider when discussing polls concerns how a poll may become skewed. A variety of factors can lead to a poll’s results being skewed. Phrasing of questions and question order are likely sources of flaws. Inadequate interviewer training and supervision, data processing errors and other operational problems can also introduce errors. Wording of the questions can be especially important, as they can be worded in an unfair or biased way in order to generate a reaction. During troubled economic times, for example, if people are asked what they think of the economy before they are asked their opinion of the president, the presidential popularity rating will probably be lower than if you had reversed the order of the questions. And in good economic times, the opposite is true. It is important to note, that even with all of the potential problems, professional polling is much less likely to incur any of these errors than volunteer based polling.
There are two types of polls that have generated much attention in recent years which are important to discuss. The first type is the push-poll. The push-poll has been used in political campaigns as well as by special interest groups. Its goal is to spread rumors and even outright lies about opponents. Through push polling, one makes certain the respondent hears and understands the accusation in the question, rather than gathering the respondent’s opinions. Push-polls have been deemed unethical and have been condemned by professional polling organizations. Regardless of who has used the push-poll in the past, one must understand that not all campaigns engage in push-polling. Campaigns can legitimately contrast candidate issue positions in order to get feedback on the public’s reactions to those candidates’ positions.
The other type of poll is the exit poll. An exit poll is a poll taken of a voter as they leave their voting place. Exit polls, when conducted properly, can be excellent sources of information. Yet still there can be problems with exit polls because sometimes voters make mistakes as to who they believe they voted for and because absentee ballot voters are not included in exit polls. Nonetheless, if a polling organization has a good track record with exit polling, then the results can be very usefully as well as insightful.
Obviously polling is a very important part of society. It helps one to understand how the overall population may feel or react to a specific issue or situation. In order to understand polls one must understand what types of polls exist, if they are reliable, and what other characteristics to look for in a poll. Once one understands polls it is important to understand that today the gathering and analysis of public opinion for business, political, and social issues is sponsored by government agencies, academic institutions, and business organizations. The growth of survey research has led to the development of specific programs and strategies that satisfy what Americans really want and need. Opinions do count and surveys are how opinions are collected.
A public-opinion poll is no substitute for thought.
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