You can count on two perennial stories at this stage in the election cycle: (1) stories about the latest polls and (2) denunciations of all the stories about the latest polls.
Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times (“Our insane addiction to polls”), “I’d say that we’re in a period of polling bloat, but bloat is too wan a word. Where polling and the media’s attention to it are concerned, we’re gorging ourselves into a state of morbid obesity.”
He added, “We’re wallowing in polls even as they come to wildly different conclusions that should give us serious pause.”
Not so fast, my friend.
Yes, you can read about two polls that reach totally opposite conclusions. You could conclude that we should ignore all polls. But that would be as wrong-headed as believing every poll.
There are good polls, and there are bad polls. There are well-done polls you can trust, and there are poorly done polls you should ignore.
Just like restaurants. There are good restaurants and bad restaurants. The Angus Barn and Hardee’s are both restaurants. One serves great steaks, and the other serves Angus burgers.
It’s just like basketball teams, or cars or people. Or anything in life. There are good ones and there are bad ones.
You’ve got to know something about polling generally and specific polls to make judgments. Do they use live callers? Do they call cell phones? Do they call from a list of registered voters, or do they just talk to whoever answers?
It would help if you knew how much the poll cost, though you rarely will. Was it a cheap job, just to get a headline? Or was it a more expensive high-quality effort?
Of course, you rarely get to see the sequencing or exact wording of the questions, which can have a yuuuuuuge impact on the results.
So don’t believe every poll you see. But don’t go to the other extreme and say all polls are useless. There is nothing more illuminating – and, if you’re running a campaign, important – than a good poll.