- - Sunday, October 23, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Public-opinion polls can be infuriating. They’re often read as if they’re telling us how to vote, rather than a speculation on how what we’ll do. Indeed, some voters who want to be part of a fashionable majority will take them that way, and hitch a ride on a bandwagon. The polls are doubly infuriating because they’re usually right. Not always, as several spectacular examples demonstrate, but usually the polls are the way to bet.

Only the foolish disregard the polls. Donald Trump is trailing in most of them, perhaps by 5 or 6 points. But not all. Rasmussen, which has been remarkably reliable over the past several national elections, and the Investors Business Daily poll, which was closest to the final result four years ago, both say the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is effectively dead even. It’s difficult for a candidate trailing by 5 or 6 points in mid-October to gain enough ground over the last three weeks of the campaign to win. But if it can be done, this might be the year. Nothing surprises in this one.

Many poll-takers over the years have posed questions based on concerns other than politics. The Gallup organization, which has been polling for 80 years, has often asked questions about unusual topics, and the answers offer unusual insights into the times. In 1935, on the eve of a visit by the king and queen of England, Americans were asked whether men should bow and women curtsy to the king.

Nearly 80 percent said Americans should neither bow nor curtsy, that a simple handshake was good enough. But times change. Nearly eight decades later an American president would bow low to Islamic rulers. Another question inquired whether Americans had any interest in buying “a home television set.” Eighty-seven percent said no thanks, they had no interest in watching television. No one thought television would ever amount to much. There were books and newspapers to read and movies to watch. Why add clutter to the parlor?

The job of the pollsters has become more and more difficult with the passage of the years. Taking a poll requires more than asking voters at random to say who they’re voting for. Building a sample, with representative numbers of men, women, Democrats, Republicans and others from across geographic and ethnic groups, is painstaking and scientific work. Sending poll-takers door to door is expensive. Polling by telephone is particularly difficult, because more and more voters have cell phones and no landline telephones, and it’s difficult to know where a sample voter actually lives. There’s more guesswork in the final days and hours of a campaign than pollsters want to talk about, so a pollster’s lot is not always a happy one.

How a voter is influenced by his reading of the polls will affect how he votes. The candidates and the media, particularly this year, are trying to create a bandwagon effect, and there’s a risk that many voters believe, rightly or wrongly, that their votes won’t make a difference in the outcome. That happened in Florida in 2000 when the major networks, eager to be first with the news, early in the evening inaccurately called Florida for Al Gore.

In the panhandle of the northwestern part of the state, the voter polls were still open, and many supporters and George W. Bush voters stayed home. Since then the networks have resisted making calls based on the returns in the eastern states when voters in the midsection of the country have not yet voted.

Voters must take the results of public-opinion polls with a grain or two of salt, cast their votes on their own lookout, and ignore perceptions created by pollsters. The voter has an obligation to leap from the bandwagon, and mark a ballot.

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