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Influence and Reliability of Survey Polls

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posted on May, 14 2011 @ 11:21 AM

Influence and Reliability of Survey Polls

We probably hear survey poll statistics everyday. You may see it on the news or in the headlines- “Latest numbers indicate that X% of all people agree with/support/believe/approve of the president, latest issue, etc”. These polls can range broadly on subject matter, but for this discussion I will mostly use presidential polls as the primary example and reference the polling company Gallup.

So how reliable are these polls? Let’s first look at the influence of survey polls and why there might be a motive for manipulation.

Influence of Survey Polls

The results of survey polls can have significant effects on the opinions of others. This is commonly known as the bandwagon effect where the majority opinion can influence the opinion of the general population. In high school perspective, a certain percentage of the population will always go along with the crowd. So for example, if a survey poll shows that the latest presidential approval numbers are high, then a portion of those who currently disapprove or are indifferent, may re evaluate their stance and perhaps ultimately even change their opinions with the logic that majority opinion must be right.

An attempt can be made to use polls to influence rather than to reflect public opinion. Polls can be manipulated to give a false picture of public opinion. Moreover, there is evidence that since polls are believed to be reliable and useful, the public could be misled by unreliable surveys.

It can also have an effect on intent to vote for the general population. For example, If candidate X has a 1% chance of winning according to a survey poll, then will candidate X supporters really feel the need to actually vote? A few undoubtedly will, but certainly more would vote if they felt their vote could make an impact.

Reliability of Survey Polls

How most survey polls are conducted.

According to Gallup:

The majority of Gallup surveys in the U.S. are based on interviews conducted by landline and cellular telephones. Generally, Gallup refers to the target audience as "national adults," representing all adults, aged 18 and older, living in United States. The findings from Gallup's U.S. surveys are based on the organization's standard national telephone samples, consisting of directory-assisted random-digit-dial (RDD) telephone samples using a proportionate, stratified sampling design. A computer randomly generates the phone numbers Gallup calls from all working phone exchanges (the first three numbers of your local phone number) and not-listed phone numbers; thus, Gallup is as likely to call unlisted phone numbers as listed phone numbers

Ways they could they be manipulated

Here are a few of many ways that numbers might be manipulated.

1 - Final numbers aren’t representative of actual polling result numbers - Since the raw data results are often kept private and confidential, there’s really no way of knowing if the final released numbers are entirely accurate of the actual results from their poll.

2 - Numbers are embellished - Let’s say that President X has a 56% approval rating. Seems pretty straight forward, but there are other factors, such as the margin of error and “unsure” responses, that could largely impact this number. Without getting in too much depth about statistics and random sampling, the margin of error roughly depends on how many individuals were surveyed, the larger the survey the lower the margin of error.

The typical sample size for a Gallup poll, either a traditional stand-alone poll or one night's interviewing from Gallup's Daily tracking, is 1,000 national adults with a margin of error of ±4 percentage points.

So already, the results could be off by 4%. Then there’s those who answered “Not sure”, “No Opinion”, “Other”, etc... (depending on the poll). These generally range from 5-15%. So combined with the margin of error, this could be easily swayed by a good 10% in either direction. This is not likely to be pointed out by the news source, which leads me to the usual suspect, the media.

The Media Connection

Perhaps the greatest manipulation occurs from the media sources that release the information as it is no secret of the strong political ties that many media outlets possess. Realize that they have the option to even mention the poll or not. They have many polls at their disposal so there’s a definite conscious choice of why some polls are headlined and others are not (this can be said for really any news story). Notice the timing of it as well. Presidential approval numbers, for example, are readily available at any time, but they may choose to mention the numbers only when they hold favorable/unfavorable positions respective to their political ties.

Also, pay attention to the phrasing of the announcement itself .There are many ways to phrase the results of any poll. They could say “President X has 60% approval rating” to put it in a positive light. They could also say “40% of people disapprove of President X” to cast in a more negative manner. Clearly, one sounds better than the other.


In my opinion, survey polls are casually thrown at us everyday in the subtlest of ways, yet their very presence clearly has a strong influence on the general population. With such a strong influence, there lies a great motive for manipulating these polls.
I believe that the majority of the polls are as accurate as they can be with little or no foul play involved. I base this on the fact that many businesses or campaigns need to get accurate information, and that it would be a high risk for these polling companies to engage in any bad or dirty business affairs. Gallup, specifically, has a reputable track record for over 70 years, and I don’t think they would have survived if they consistently gave unreliable information or had been accused of any allegations of this nature. Again, that’s my opinion, and it could very well be wrong.
With that said, however, I believe the media sources that release the polls are a completely different story and that if any manipulation were to occur, it would likely be at this level. There is little doubt in my mind that there is a strong manipulation by most media sources on the nature, extent, wording, and timing of the polls. But “reliability of media” is a thread or book in itself, and one that would probably frustrate me too much to even write


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