Why Pay for the Poll if You Don’t Understand It?

Today the Gallup poll released its final head-to-head horserace numbers. The results, which predictably ran on the front page of USA Today, one of Gallup’s media sponsors, showed the candidates tied at 49 percent to 49 percent.

In this last poll, Gallup decided to shift an overwhelming majority of undecided voters into Kerry’s corner. According to USA Today, “Gallup’s formula assumes that nine of ten of those voters would support Kerry, based on analyses of previous presidential races involving an incumbent.” As the paper notes, without Gallup’s assumption that nine out of ten undecided voters will go for Kerry, Bush leads by two percentage points, 49 percent to 47 percent — not a big change, but a change, nonetheless. (Both results are well within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.)

While USA Today did explain Gallup’s methodology, CNN, co-sponsor of the poll, wasn’t so helpful. Reporting on the Gallup numbers at 4:05 p.m. EST, “Inside Politics” anchor Judy Woodruff explained that the poll results showing a tie were “according to an estimate of the way undecided voters will go,” but didn’t explain the nature of the estimate that USA Today did (in just twenty words).

Sadly, Woodruff did a better job than her colleague Wolf Blitzer did an hour later. Blitzer explained to his viewers that the tie at 49 percent to 49 percent occurs “when the undecided vote is removed.” That’s not just confusing, it’s also dead wrong. In this particular Gallup poll, the undecided voters were not removed from the equation, but actually inserted into Kerry’s column.

As we’ve pointed out before, polls are puzzling enough all by themselves — part science, part art, part hunch. The last thing voters need are talking heads who understand neither the details of how a particular poll was structured nor the assumptions behind that decision — or, worse, who just get it flat wrong.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.