After 2016 Surprises, Some Tips on Interpreting Polls

When it comes to interpreting political and public policy polls, it’s not just the numbers that matter.

It also the words – and often what order they come in.

In a session with National Press Foundation Paul Miller fellows, two experts on political and social issue polling offered a tutorial on reading and understanding polls, as well as how not to get snookered by them.

Emily Swanson, director of public opinion research at The Associated Press, and Ruth Igielnik, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, offered one poll as an example. The poll’s sponsor was an oil industry interest group and the takeaway conclusion was that 71% of South Carolina voters favored offshore oil and natural gas development.

But the question on favor or oppose came after plenty of other questions that softened respondents’ minds to the idea. Among them: “How important to you is producing more oil and natural gas here at home?” “Please indicate if you agree or disagree – Increased production of domestic oil and natural gas could lead to more jobs in the U.S.”

“They are sort of giving people a lot of questions to why natural gas is great, and then asking what they think about it,” Igielnik  (bio, Twitter) said.

The two also talked about the mechanics of polling, including the differences in polling techniques and the validity of web-based polls. It’s also vital to know when a poll was in the field, since news – particularly in the wild three years since Donald Trump was elected president – moves so quickly.

Reporters need to understand all these factors and be prepared to push for information about them.

Swanson (Twitter) also described her advice to reporters writing poll stories at the AP. Among her tips: If a lead is within the poll’s margin of error, don’t describe that as a lead. Describe it as close or about even.

This program is funded by Arnold Ventures. NPF is solely responsible for the content.

Emily Swanson
Director of public opinion research, The Associated Press
Ruth Igielnik
Senior researcher, Pew Research Center
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