1,000 Zealots Versus The Sane Majority – Why So Many Political Polls Are Wrong

January 16, 2010

by Ellen Brandt, Ph.D.

Most Americans group pollsters with telemarketers and bill collectors on their Those-We-Don’t-Care-To-Talk-With roster. And the way most polls are worded, nearly everyone in the country is a “conservative,” a “liberal,” and a “moderate” – all at the same time!

I’ve gotten calls from three or four political polling organizations in the past few days – and turned down every one. In this, I think I am typical of most Americans who don’t represent the political extremes. Unless it’s very close to an important election in our area, we tend to classify pollsters with hucksters selling aluminum siding, charities hoping you’ll help stamp out knee-cap-fungus disease, or that sweet-voiced lady asking you to remit your outrageous electric bill or risk being waylaid by Ninjas.

Which is one of the two major problems with those recent poll results, stating – according to the latest Gallup/USA Today round-up of aggregate polls from 2009 – that 40 percent of Americans call themselves “conservative,” compared with 21 percent self-identifying as “liberal” and 37 percent as “moderate.”

These results do suggest that zealots on the Far Right are now far better organized than zealots on the Far Left. And that the definition of “Far Right” has clearly shifted, since the poll aggregates also say that only 40 percent of Americans self-identify as Republican or “GOP-leaning,” compared to 49 percent saying they’re Democrats or “Democrat-leaning,” while almost 37 percent of these totals say they’re “Independents.”

Huh? Guess that means there are one heckuva lot of “leanings” up for grabs, and that more of those “leanings” proclaim themselves as “conservative” than anything else. But the fact that those identifying with the GOP has not similarly risen clearly shows the so-called “Tea Partiers” – rabid Libertarians who have little in common with the GOP we all grew up with – are dominating the polls and possibly hoodwinking the pollsters.

More about that in a future article.

For now, I’d like you to think about the two main reasons the aggregate political poll results may be so far off-base, they’re in outer space.

So once again: We in the Sane Centrist Majority tend not to talk to political pollsters, because we’re concerned about privacy, don’t really trust them, and have other things on our minds besides standing on a soapbox screaming.

Extremists, however – or those with a one-dominant-issue focus, whether it’s abortion or gay marriage or gun control or banning farm-raised catfish – will gladly expound their views to any pollster who calls them. When we’re talking about average poll samples for Gallup/USA Today of only about 1,000 individuals, there’s the possibly for some outrageous sample skewing, no matter how “scientific” the pollsters believe their methodologies are.

Being both security-conscious and privacy-oriented, I have my own particular little “script” when someone I don’t know telephones me. First I say, “You know I’m on the Do Not Call list” – which is true. A legitimate pollster will cite the exemption for political polls from Do Not Call protocols.

Then I insist that the caller tell me who the client is for the poll in question. Close to election time, the pollster may name a specific candidate or ballot proposal interest group as the client. In that case, I am generally happy to answer. And I’d likewise happily answer polls for the GOP National Committee – or for that matter, the Democratic National Committee, despite being a Republican – as well as for a respected interest group or publication.

But every one of the recent pollsters I’ve heard from – Yes, including Gallup and Rasmussen – have categorically refused to say which of their clients commissioned their polls. So I’ve refused to participate – and so will many others who think of themselves as “in the Middle.” Our rationale is that if the polling organization wants to keep their client a secret, the poll may be consciously or unconsciously skewed to reflect the interests of that client and the outcome the client desires. Call it “good business relationship-building.” But we skeptical and cautious potential subjects don’t like it.

Soapbox Nellies or Nelsons, on the other hand, tend to respond to every pollster who comes calling, cheerfully becoming part of the 1,000-citizen sample. I’d wager a lot of them go off on tangents. Can’t you imagine a beleaguered pollster trying to rein them in? “Yes, Bob, you make a very good case for Key West seceding from the Union. But are you a conservative, liberal, or moderate?”

We Support A Strong Military, Well-Trained Teachers, and The League of Women Voters

Another major problem with these vague “What’s your political orientation?” polls is that unless the pollster in question painstakingly defines the terms being used, virtually no two individuals will think of the words and phrases being discussed in the exact same way. In fact, most people’s personal interpretations of “conservative” or “liberal” or “moderate” may change daily or hourly, depending on what they last read, which TV show they just watched, or which obnoxious relative or neighbor last ticked them off with their off-the-wall theories.

For instance, if your dotty Cousin Emma just told you she thinks her chihuahua Pixie deserves the vote, and you interpret that as a “liberal” stance, you might not care to identify yourself as “liberal” when a pollster calls.

If Clark Kent III, on Super-Freedom Radio, just said he advocates arming every six-year-old with a can of Mace, and he proclaims himself an “average conservative,” you might not feel too charitable towards conservatives on that particular day.

Or if the newscasts feature sound bites from Commentators X, Y, and Z calling Senator Petunia Smith-Jones a DINO, a RINO, or even a WINO, because she had the audacity to cross party lines on a particular piece of legislation, you may be wary of self-identifying with “moderates” at that moment.

Of course, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” and “moderate” have numerous semantic interpretations to begin with. In fact, there are probably as many interpretations of these broad and loaded terms as there are individual U.S. citizens.

I’d guess that most Americans think of ourselves as “conservative” when it comes to believing in a strong defense that prevents us from being invaded or subverted by international – or perhaps intergalactic – enemies. And we’re certainly conservative in the terms’s root sense: We want to conserve and preserve our nation’s assets and resources and values – as well as our own.

At the same time, most Americans see themselves as “liberal” in the sense of supporting freedom of expression, freedom of religious belief, and freedom to pursue our separate and equal forms of “happiness,” provided they’re legal, moral, and non-fattening. Most of us favor such universal goals as a good educational system, support for scientific research, and providing some sort of “safety net” for the poorest among us.

Yet the majority of Americans are “moderate” when it comes to overseeing our various institutional frameworks, making sure that they work for everyone, not just the favored few. So we’re happy that the League of Women Voters, rather than the League of People With Large Mansions and Private Planes, monitors our election venues. And that every level of our governmental process provides for at least some basic checks and balances to prevent abuse.

While I’m sure the political pollsters understand the difficulty of defining loaded terms like “liberal” or “moderate” or “conservative,” rarely – in my own experience, never – do they make the slightest attempt to guide poll respondents to some universal definition of such terms that might actually give their aggregate polls some value beyond pleasing their (secret) clients or providing catchy headlines for the evening news.

Until they do, take all such polls with one humongous grain of salt.

Tell Us What You Think:

***Do you tend to respond to political polls, or are you cautious about them?

***Have you ever had a particularly upsetting, amusing, or simply strange encounter with a telephone pollster? Tell us about it.

***Have you ever worked as a political pollster yourself? Tell us about that experience.

***What do you think typical Americans mean when they say they’re “moderate” or “conservative” or “liberal?” Do you agree that personal interpretations of these terms are all over the map?

***Have you ever regretted what you said to a pollster? Did you feel you were misinterpreted or that you revealed something you would rather not have revealed?

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For her already-influential blog Baby Boomers-The Angriest Generation, go to: http://angriestgeneration.wordpress.com

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7 Responses to “1,000 Zealots Versus The Sane Majority – Why So Many Political Polls Are Wrong”

  1. plusaf Says:

    I’d venture the opinion that polls became popular when politicians discovered that they could tailor their “views” to polls cheaper and easier than they could describe or defend their views to their constituents on a face-to-face basis.

    Oh, wait . . . Did I misspeak? Aren’t they supposed to be representing our views, not their own?

    If there’s any truth to that theory, it’s a miserable reflection on those elected that they’re taking the lazy, “efficient” way out by paying someone else to take the pulse of the folks who voted for them.

  2. Jeff Nielson Says:

    I’ve spent a lot of time in my own writing decrying the gross over-use of “labels” as a substitution for analysis.

    Indeed, the current generation of media talking-heads is being more and more dominated by an army of simpleton label-makers – who do nothing but attach labels and buzz-words to people and events, yet labor under the delusion that they have “said something.”

    This “sound-bite” journalism is being deliberately sought out by larger spam-sites – where those cranking-out one page “filler pieces” (which contain nothing but labels and buzz-words) are prized above all other writers.

  3. Brian Hibbert Says:

    Labels are part of the problem. The definitions of liberal, conservative, progressive, etc. have become so muddled as to be almost meaningless.

    For example, the term “liberal” – as you say – has a classical definition that includes “supporting freedom of expression, freedom of religious belief, and freedom to pursue our separate and equal forms of happiness, provided they’re legal, moral, and non-fattening.”

    Well maybe not the non-fattening part.

    But the people who currently call themselves “liberal” support policies that specifically limit all these freedoms, and the people who call themselves “conservative” tend to support those freedoms.

    A good example of a classical “liberal” is Milton Friedman, though he’d be smack in the middle of what is currently defined as “conservative” now.

    So if the labels are meaningless, what do you do?

    I suggest figuring out what your core values are. What do you actually believe in?

    Do you believe that the government should be responsible for your well- being from cradle to grave? How much personal responsiblity should people have for their own well-being?

    Should someone have the freedom to say a prayer in a public place? Is a pregnant woman carrying a baby or an unviable tissue mass?

    How much of your money should you be allowed to spend yourself?

    Then figure out which group or groups of people are pushing policies that meet your beliefs.

    If you care at all about political matters, talk to groups that you think most closely meet your ideologies and discuss your views.

    See if they 1. agree with your views or 2. provide reasonable arguments that support their non-agreement with you or 3. are willing to accept you for holding views on some topics that differ from the majority.

    Who knows? You may find you’re nudging the group towards your beliefs.

    • ellenbrandtphd Says:


      I love mini-essays within blog Comments threads!

      I will soon be opening this site to guest commentators and would love to have you as one.

      Please contact me at Linked In or elsewhere.

  4. Bob Gio Says:

    When did conducting polls become news?

    I find it disturbing that almost daily, there is a new poll out sponsored by both a television network and a news magazine (i.e. Times/CNN Poll – Oh, and they are owned by the same company).

    Whatever major issue is in the news, broadcasters feel compelled to take a sampling of how Americans either feel or would react to various scenarios.

    This is not news! This is a way to create news. And being a former journalist, I had always been taught that once a station conducts “Man on the Street” interviews or resorts to polls, they are really living out that warning from Marshall McLuhan in his “Understanding Media” book: “The media will become the message.”

  5. Asher Says:

    As Kathie Moore notes, there are some even more fundamental problems with standard polling, such as the restriction of all major pollsters to telephoning only Americans who have land lines.

    According to some studies, 23% of U.S. homes have only cell phones, and six out of ten homes have both landline and cell phones.

    I personally have a landline for DSL but never answer that phone, since it is always telemarketers or other strangers (I can easily see this via Caller ID). People I know call me on my cell phone.

    The same studies say 37% of U.S. homes are either cell-phone-only or have a landline but don’t answer that phone, often instead using the line for Internet.

    In the age group 25 to 29, 46% lived in cell-phone-only homes, while 22% of those age 35 to 44 had only cell phones.

    If traditional pollsters are consistently missing 6 out of 10 American homes where the cell phone is king and are basing their results solely on the 40% of landline-only U.S. homes, there are serious questions about the validity of these polling results.

  6. Kathie Moore Says:

    While I’ve never been polled in the manner described, I have had some interesting phone experiences.

    I am contacted by a local TV station periodically – a ROBO call – they ask for my age (a few months past official Boomer status) and immediately the call is terminated. Blatant ageism, if you ask me.

    I was contacted about my opinion regarding location of two proposed casinos. When asked which location I would patronize – highway exit A versus highway exit B – I asked which was closer to an area city. The pollster couldn’t or wouldn’t give further information, “just answer A or B, Ma’am.”

    Then there was a “push poll” conducted several years ago for a close senate race. One candidate, a self-proclaimed conservative Christian, the other, who was leading in the polls at the time, of the Jewish faith. The caller asked respondants if they would support anyone who didn’t believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior. Guess who rebounded and won the election?

    Finally with the exodus from land lines especially by the more technologically savy, I question the validity of “representative sampling.” As observed, the structuring of any question is easily manipulated as to call into question the entire process.

    In my opinion polling is a sham that wields far too much influence.

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