- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

We’re not just robotic respondents: Americans are far more discerning about opinion surveys than wily pollsters might credit them. Some folks even follow those assorted statistics like a sport.

So says a new poll — about polling.

The public appears to have some healthy skepticism. More than two-thirds of us — 68 percent — say that surveys are mishandled by the press. Though polls may be accurate, many say news outlets distort results by reporting them in a misleading or biased context, according to findings released Friday by the Sacred Heart University Polling Institute.

The public skittishness about polls is of special interest in a presidential election year, proof that the “debacle” of 2000 has yet to be forgotten. That election night, George W. Bush and Al Gore were alternately and erroneously pronounced the victor in the White House race by news organizations eager for a scoop. Broadcasters in particular made premature calls based on exit polls alone — rattling voter confidence and putting press credibility in question.

The failure also changed the face of coverage. In every national election since then, chastened journalists vowed to be accurate rather than simply first.

The public also does not buy the claims of politicians who insist they ignore poll results when crafting policy or campaign strategy, the Sacred Heart survey found. “Over three-quarters — 77 percent — said candidates and elected officials who say they don”t listen to polls are lying,” it said.

The public also admits to a little fibbing of its own, though. “The researchers found that 11 percent of Americans who have participated in a poll said they have lied to a pollster,” the poll said.

That honesty “was refreshing,” said Jerry Lindsley, director of the institute.

“Americans are pretty astute about polling. They get it. And they like polls — 67 percent said they’re interested in poll results, and 60 percent enjoy seeing how they fit in with the rest of the nation,” Mr. Lindsley said.

“Polls are like a forum, a way to see what constitutes ‘normal’ in this day and age. And in many ways, following poll statistics has become a new sport,” he added.

Americans have plenty to chose from. Daily political polls chart the fate of White House hopefuls within fractions of a percentage point. Gallup releases several polls every day while Harris Interactive says it has surveyed more than 70 million people in the past quarter-century.

Nearly one-third of all Americans surveyed have participated in a political, policy or issue poll while almost three-quarters said that polls are generally accurate and believable, the Sacred Heart survey said. They have reservations, though: More than a third said the wording of poll questions was biased or leading.

The survey of 800 adults was conducted March 3-15 and has a margin for error of three percentage points.

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