posted on July 09, 2012 17:47
In the old days there were only around a dozen political pollsters in the whole country and men like Lance Tarrance and Arthur Finkelstein spent years bent over poll books looking for trends and subtle enigmas and if you were in politics – like Tom Ellis and Jesse Helms and me – what they learned had the power to change an election.
Today we have hundreds of pollsters. And thousands of polls. There’re two pollsters right here in Raleigh: Public Policy Polling (a Democratic pollster) and Civitas Institute (a Republican pollster).
Last week, Rasmussen Polls reported Pat McCrory trouncing Walter Dalton by 12 points.
The next day another poll showed McCrory in a squeaker – only leading Dalton by 2 points.
And to confuse things a bit more, earlier in June, Public Policy Polling reported McCrory leading Dalton by 7 points.
2, 7, and 12. The math doesn’t add up.
Old-fashioned polls were done entirely by people – a lady who worked as an ‘interviewer’ would call a voter and ask, Would you mind participating in a poll?
Modern polls are automated: The phone rings, a recorded voice intones, This is a poll. Are you voting for Pat McCrory or Walter Dalton? If McCrory press 1, if Dalton press 2. No one knows if the person pressing the buttons is six or sixty years old.
Modern polls are also less expensive, costing a couple of thousand dollars – a fraction of the cost of an old-fashioned poll. And modern polls are shorter – old-fashioned pollsters asked fifty or sixty questions in one poll. Modern pollsters ask ten or fifteen questions.
Old-fashioned polls hardly ever ended up in the newspapers (who wanted to spend $20,000 on a poll then publish it in the News and Observer where, say, Jim Hunt could read it) – while modern pollsters are in the newspapers more often than candidates.
Polling’s a mirror of Modern Times: What was once long, subtle and expensive – has become short, cheap and automated.