- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 1, 2002

Pollster John Zogby and polling critic Matthew Robinson debated yesterday about news media abuse of public opinion surveys for partisan purposes and were surprised to find how much they agreed.
Mr. Robinson is the author of a new book, "Mobocracy: How the Media's Obsession With Polling Twists the News," that fiercely attacks pollsters and polls as pawns of a generally liberal-leaning news media that too often panders to and distorts public opinion.
Mr. Zogby is a political pollster who has built a reputation for being very accurate in the past several elections. He said that polls conducted carefully and fairly can perform a valuable public service that opens up critical lines of communication between legislators and the people. But he also confessed that after reading Mr. Robinson's book, "there is a lot in there that I agree with."
Their meeting at the Cato Institute's Policy Forum had all the appearances of a debate, but when it was over, Mr. Zogby had expressed nearly as many complaints about his profession as Mr. Robinson did.
Mr. Robinson criticized pollsters for too often tilting questions to elicit desired responses that fit in with the news media's political views.
"There is a liberal bias in the news media and that affects the way the question is asked," he said.
For example, he cited one poll that asked whether money should be spent on tax cuts that would otherwise go for education, health care, Medicare, Social Security and national defense, which predictably drew a strong majority against tax cuts.
"These questions do not contribute to a healthy, informed debate," Mr. Robinson said.
Too often "polls give a false sense that Americans are knowledgeable and opinionated" when many polls show they are "horribly uninformed," he said. One poll found that a majority of voters believed that 10 percent of the federal budget was spent on foreign aid when it is actually less than 1 percent.
Mr. Zogby agreed that tilted questions were "particularly egregious. If you are going to offer voters a choice, you have to give them a balanced choice. You cannot load up one side."
And Mr. Zogby condemned the use of election night exit surveys to forecast the outcome before the polls had closed.
"That is wrong. They should be used after the fact to tell us who voted and why," he said.
He also embraced Mr. Robinson's opposition to overnight polls and to quick phone polls of a few hundred "adults" 18 years of age or older, which often result in an unrepresentative sampling of opinion.
Mr. Zogby said that when polling policy issues, "the only polls that matter are the ones that use likely voters," preferably 1,000 voters or more, and not just at election time but "all year round."
He also said that pollsters should "release all the information" about what went into their polls, including the methodology used in achieving the final percentages.
Still, he maintained that good, accurate polling performed a valuable public service. "Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. Polls are good because they test policies," Mr. Zogby said.
"When we poll about policies, we are not just getting a fleeting opinion but an understanding of deeply held core values that are important to our understanding of public opinion," he said.
Mr. Zogby predicted that the way polls are conducted will undergo a big change in the future because of the steeply declining response rate from telephone polling.
"More of our polling is going to be done on the Internet. Once you have 80 percent Internet access, you are getting a pretty accurate sampling. Those who are too poor are probably not going to vote anyway," he said.

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