Boychuk: Don't trust opinion polls

"Romney may be down, but not in the

"Romney may be down, but not in the way these media polls show," writes Ben Boychuck. (Credit: Paul Tong / Tribune Media Services)

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Pollsters in 2012 are the Col. Kurtz of American politics. Like the Marlon Brando character in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic “Apocalypse Now,” their methods are “unsound.”

Unlike Kurtz, however, nobody is coming to terminate pollsters’ credibility. They’re doing a fine job of that on their own.

Look at the garbage that media pollsters are feeding the public a month before the election. The venerable Gallup poll is still releasing surveys of “registered voters” showing Obama tied with Romney in its national tracking poll.


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A tie? Maybe. Trouble is, the only demographic more flighty and less reliable than registered voters are “U.S. adults.” If you see a poll of registered voters at this point, throw it in the trash. It’s worthless.

Even more worthless was the Washington Post poll last week showing Obama with an 11-point lead over Romney in key battleground states.

Trouble is, that part of the poll had an eight-point margin of error.

More garbage.

The best polls survey “likely voters,” but even those aren’t always as reliable as they seem. After the 2008 election, a Democratic polling firm collected nearly 13,000 names of people who had told pollsters they were “almost certain” or “will probably” vote, and compared them with an actual voter file. Turned out just 87 percent of “certain” voters actually did.

A Slate article detailing those findings summed up the situation beautifully: “Likely Voters’ Lie.”

So pollsters have a big problem. As Adam Probolsky and Justin Wallin of Southern California-based polling firm Probolsky Research explain it, too many pollsters use outmoded turnout models and flawed samples.

Plus, more people are dumping their landlines for cell phones and simply ignore robocalls. And fewer people like talking to strangers.

(Me? I love talking to pollsters! Call me anytime.) Romney may be down, but not in the way these media polls show. Whether or not Romney unseats Obama on Nov. 6, it’s a fair bet the pollsters will be the big losers the next morning.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

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