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Helpful Tips for Reading Public Opinion Polls

Given the current political atmosphere, it is impossible to stray away from the ubiquity of the 2016 presidential election. This is the first presidential election for many millennials, so it is important to be informed on the candidates. One way to stay up to date on the election is to follow public opinion polls. 

Keep these tips in mind when reading a public opinion poll:

• Look at the history and reputation of the poll. Has it been recognized in publications? Does the poll have longevity? If the poll has been around for a while, enough people read it, therefore view it as a reliable source of information.

• Research the resume’s of the pollsters. This should be a critical element of your evaluation. Look for partisan jobs that they’ve held or organizations that they belong to. Many pollsters have partisan careers. If the entire staff leans towards one party, you may want to reconsider where you get your information from, as pollsters can skew poll questions a certain way.

• Sample makeup should also be a key consideration when choosing your preferred poll.  Are the samples diverse? Does the demographic makeup accurately reflect the population? If there isn’t proper demographic balance, results will be inaccurate. Small sub groups will have a large margin of error, so it is important to see how many people are in the subgroup as it can show how closely the poll reflects the population. Click here for more information: https://www.aapor.org/Education-Resources/ Election-Polling-Resources/Measuring-Sub-Group-Preferences.aspx

• Does the poll uses live interviewers or a recorded message?  Live interviewers have a better chance at reaching specific groups of people which better represent the population, while recorded messages tend to rely on automatic dialing. It is easier for a person to hang up on a recording than a live person.  To read more on sampling techniques, click here: https://www.aapor.org/Education-Resources/ Election-Polling-Resources/Sampling-Methods-for-Political-Polling.aspx

• Research the outlet in which you are seeing poll results. Check to see if the poll results are featured on a partisan news channel. If they are, there is a chance that the poll is somehow tied to or supported by that news channel therefore producing partisan results.

• Read the survey questions. While there is no way to test the quality of the survey, look at the individual questions and see if the questions offer all response options. For example, when asking what candidate one supports, are third party candidates present? Click the following links to learn more about response rates and survey quality.  https://www.aapor.org/Education-Resources/For-Researchers/Poll-Survey-FAQ/Response-RatesAn-Overview.aspx

• Look for poll aggregators. Poll aggregators bring together poll results from various sources using national and state polls. This process gives an average of poll results which can be seen as more reliable. For more information, click here https://www.aapor.org/Education-Resources/ElectionPolling-Resources/Poll-Aggregators.aspx

As a millennial, it is hard to stay away from social media posts. Information is easily accessible through applications, making it easy for people to believe almost everything they read. No matter where you get your polling information from, it is important to do your research as many sources that seem credible are not.

*This guide was prepared by DCEP student Carly Frank