Commentary: The Problem With Polls

barack obama and mitt romney

Commentary: The Problem With Polls

With each passing day, a new poll makes an appearance. What is a person to believe?

Published May 16, 2012

Do you believe in fortune-tellers? Most sensible people do not. But each election cycle some unknown force seems to sweep over even the most rational lot of voters as the parade of polls marches across our computer and TV screens. Even though there really is no infallible, tried-and-true, 100-percent fail-proof predictor of voting results, we’re faced with a deluge of polls that promise to do what many of the prophets of old have attempted to do since the dawn of time: predict the future.

And so the election year madness begins. First, a CBS News poll that claimed to gauge how well President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney are faring with women became fodder for the 24-hour news cycle. According to this poll, Romney has a 2 percent lead over Obama with women. 

But a new day brought a new poll. Just as the ink was drying on the CBS News poll, the folks over at Gallup decided to release their own assessment of the candidates’ female appeal. Unlike the CBS News poll, the Gallup poll found that Obama was doing much better among female voters over Romney.

The question is: How can such respectable agencies produce such diametrically opposed results? While enquiring minds may want to know, I believe the answer is quite simple. Nobody, no agency, no scientist, no demographer, no analyst, no statistician and no pollster can truly predict the future.

How do I know this? Let’s just look back to the 2008 presidential election for the sake of ease. Even without the raw data, nobody could have actually predicted that this nation was ready to elect the first African-American president at that time. It may be difficult to remember that the victor, Barack Obama, was once the underdog.

Sometimes, researchers make mistakes, or the political tide suddenly and unexpectedly defies the expected trend. Often poll funders influence results, and sometimes the actual participants simply don’t tell the truth. There are a number of reasons that can factor into the way that the winds of poll results will blow.

Why do we fall for the pollsters each and every time? And why do we as news professionals continue to give polls such credence? Everyone loves a good race and there’s nothing more exciting than keeping score day by day. But at a certain point, we must come to grips with the fact that nobody can predict the unpredictable. Nobody has the political crystal ball with all the answers about which candidate will come out on top. One day we will learn that when it comes to polls, the only polls we can truly have faith in are the voting polls on Election Day.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photos: Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images; Edward Linsmier/Getty Images)

Written by Andre Showell

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