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What is the Value of Political Polling?

July 12, 2011

by J. Andrew Zalucky

I get the feeling sometimes that every nerve of modern political analysis rests on opinion polling, especially presidential approval ratings. In other words, the agenda of the political news cycle has become entirely beholden to what a sampling of 1000-1500 Americans believe at a given moment and then declares “Well that’s what the country thinks!”

But how accurate can this be? For example, Pollster currently has President Obama’s approval rating at about 45%. Granted, Pollster’s number represents a combination of polling data from Rasmussen, CNN, Gallup, The Associated Press, and several other sources. But even then, you’re still letting those several thousand people speak for the entire electorate. And by doing this you are also letting the news media run wild with the assumption that they speak for all of us.

I understand the empirical underpinnings of opinion polls and surveys, but its clear that the value of such data has become so inflated that it threatens to crowd out the more nuanced and complicated thoughts of those who care about politics. However, I’m willing to be proven wrong on this point. I’d love to hear a dissenting voice out there, maybe from someone who is more schooled in this than I am. I’m just sick of having entire news blocks dedicated to the shifts and “bumps” in the President’s numbers, or entire conversations swirling around the point that “oh Drew, Obama’s in trouble! His ratings dropped from 48 to 46 the other day!”

Do I have any takers then?

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