Citizens who are consuming information about polling can become better consumers of polls by following a few important guidelines.
1) Consider how the polling is done. All survey research takes a sample, or group of responses, from a population they are trying to make inferences about. With predictive election polls, this is especially difficult. Pollsters are trying to make predictions about a population – actual voters – that they cannot sample from, since individuals notoriously overreport their intention to vote.
To alleviate this problem, most polls turn to models of “likely voters.” These models are difficult to make precise and may have led to the failures to predict the 2016 election. Many organizations, such as Gallup, are transparent in their methods for modeling likely voters. Others keep their methods secret. To help promote voter literacy, journalists should give preference to organizations that are transparent in their methods and take time to explain the poll’s methodology to readers.
2) Talk about margins. Most polling stories report a margin of error, but provide little explanation about what this means. The margin of error simply means how accurate the poll is. For example, a polling number of 52 percent with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 means that the “best” estimate of a candidates polling number is between 48 percent and 56 percent of the vote. If citizens begin to think of polling numbers as ranges, rather than exact estimates, this will lead to a better understanding of what polls really mean.