Indeed, while this might sound screwy with the CBS/New York Times poll showing Obama up 13 points just two days after AP/GfK had him up by one, polls can be trusted. You just have to know how to read them. It’s not enough to look at a headline and see “Obama’s lead widens to six points.” Most reporters are quite irresponsible about polls, reporting not what’s scientifically sound but what’s interesting.
To help readers with that, here are a few basic guidelines I’ve drawn up to help readers understand polls and figure out which ones they can trust. This is in no way a comprehensive guide; for a real expert, I suggest Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com. Silver also provides a handy guide to pollsters, explaining which follow the rules. This post, on the other hand, is a basic guide written off the top of my head for friends and regular readers. I’m just an amateur, or as this blog’s description says, “a young man still learning who he is and where he may be headed.” My credentials are simply an A- in a public opinion class, some campaign experience, an obsession with the news, and a decent legal mind.
Here, then, are nine things to check before knowing whether or not you can trust a poll. The first four are a little longer and more technical, but no worries. Everything is explained in simple language that even a potty-trained labradoodle could understand, because quite frankly, that’s the only language *I* can understand.
I used to think that excluding cell phones would leave the youth vote underrepresented, but some polls have actually included cell phones this year, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference.
Remember also that even the bestpolls can only tell you how the electorate feels at the time the poll is taken; none actually predict the future. A lot can change in a couple weeks' time – scandals, effective ads, debates, voter turnout, etc. Don’t let such things affect a pollster’s credibility. Equally important, don't ever measure a campaign by just one poll - always look at the aggregate, or take a "poll of polls."
FiveThirtyEight is a great place for poll aggregation and analysis, and RealClearPolitics is an excellent clearinghouse for polls and commentary that I check each morning, although I’m a little circumspect about their analysis. 538's polls of polls are probably a little better than RCP's.
And just like that, I’ve saved you $10,000 in tuition fees. ($8,000 if you were hoping for formulas and equations, but like I said: potty-trained labradoodle.)