Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Are they insane?

One could easily think that Americans have gone insane, if a new poll reported by Yahoo News is to be believed. The poll found that John McCain was “more trusted” by Americans than either Democrat on virtually every issue.

Relax: It’s a Rasmussen poll, one of what I consider to be the least reliable polls out there. Their widely-reported “Daily Tracking Poll” is based on phone surveys among 900 “likely Democratic voters” and 800 “likely Republican voters”. But their poll features a high margin of error of +/- 4% with a 95% level of confidence.

This particular poll was conducted among only 400 “likely voters” (in all cases, they don’t tell us how they determine the voters are “likely voters”). Despite the tiny sample, they claim a margin of error of only +/- 3.5% with a 95% level of confidence. Quite frankly, I don’t have any confidence in this poll.

It claims that a majority of their respondents trust Democrats to handle the economy, but they trust McCain more than either Clinton or Obama. You remember McCain, the man who admitted that he doesn’t understand economics at all? So, we’re supposed to believe that Americans trust Democrats, just not these two Democrats; they’d rather trust a man who admits economic ignorance. Okay, then.

Other polls have found that easily 60 percent of Americans want the US out of Iraq. Polls—including this one—have found that Americans trust Democrats on Iraq more than the Republicans. Yet this poll claims that Americans trust McCain on Iraq more than either Democrat. Oh come on now, we’re supposed to believe Americans trust the man who said 50 or 100 more years in Iraq was a good idea? Get real.

The mainstream news media is obsessed with trying to reduce the election to a horse race, with bookies laying odds at every turn. They seldom ask questions about polls, maybe because they don’t understand statistics or the mechanics of polling. They shouldn’t be allowed such shallowness. In this case, it appears the story comes from Rasmussen itself, and not a reputable news organisation, so obviously there wouldn't be any critical analysis. Even so, the mainstream news media seldom analyses polls.

Even the best poll is only a simple snapshot of a single moment in time, a moment that’s passed even before the poll is published. We all must remember that. And, because the mainstream media either can’t or won’t scrutinise polls, we must assume that any poll reported is flawed, inaccurate and, basically, useless. In my opinion, all three would apply to this latest poll. Yahoo should never have posted it directly in a section with the title "News", because that's one thing it definitely isn't.

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