Henehan: Polling has its limits

Who/what is winning right now? Polls have recently taken center stage in news and business decisions. These types of surveys can be useful when utilized correctly, but polling for the sake of having poll results does not effectively achieve any goals. Instead this practice often clouds the truth; by asking leading or arbitrary questions, polls can mislead decision-makers, prompting them to draw conclusions based on false “facts.”

As an entrepreneur, I have used surveys to find key markets as well as to establish a T-shirt design company, which uses polling in order to pinpoint which designs customers would find most appealing. The design polls are relatively straightforward, because they have a clear-cut aesthetic question to their audience: which do you like better, this or that? But even something as simple as asking people what shirts they like can be relatively difficult if you consider all the factors necessary for a successful poll.

In the political realm, election success and failure are dictated by how campaigns are able to analyze their polls. One of the most effective policies that led to Obama’s election was disregard of polls and his choice to instead look at the tangible tally of actual voter preferences. If we could have 100 percent faith in polls, we wouldn’t have to vote at all, because our voices would already be represented. Obama sent a message to his constituents that polls are not votes and are inadequate in gauging support. Furthermore, complacency could easily lead to a lackluster Election Day turnout, or worse, a McCain victory.

Finding a random sample is not always easy: The results that have kept many of us on the edges of our seats checking political sites are often skewed by the fact that they only represent registered voters who use landlines. As a student who uses polls in a business model, I am acutely aware of the problem of securing a representative pool of customers. A poll is only useful if it is diverse, representative and well thought out. To do this, one must look at all of the factors that may have influenced peoples’ answers.

Recent developments in polling and technology have led to almost instantaneous results for any new strategy or product, but this can also lead to focusing on these short-term results rather than on the long-term effects of policies and models. What has made this election feel so intense for so long was the constant concentration on polls; they allowed for every political move, word, gesture and out-of-context comment to have immediate results.

Good polls can exist, and they do not have to be difficult or expensive to do. Just talk to people, be open, and hear what they think. Make a good sample of all kinds of people, namely everyone (hopefully they want to hear it): friends, family, classmates, professors, barristas, acquaintances and strangers, because the best kind of poll is an in-depth discussion.

Numbers may look good on paper, but the best polls are actually tell you what people think — and why.

Robert Henehan is a junior in Davenport College.

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