Polls offer scant reason to get excited

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Another way of looking at the 2008 presidential election is described in this hypothetical headline: “War hero McCain draws 59 million votes; alleged Muslim from Kenya finishes next-to-last.” Technically, I suppose, that headline could be defended by some people as accurate.

The same flexibility of perspective applies to polls. Like biblical passages, they are whatever you want them to be. The arrival of May signals the unofficial start of the political primary season as speculation intensifies and more polls are released. Public interest grows in June as candidates officially file to run for office (June 7-11). The drama accelerates in July with more candidate forums and endorsements, and the competition hits full stride on July 28 when ballots for the Aug. 17 primary are mailed.

Here are a few reminders about polls that I feel obliged to issue on occasion:

Polls are not predictions; they are merely reports of answers gathered. Ask yourself, “Am I interested in answers provided by a few hundred people?” And if you proceed, promise yourself, “I won’t draw any conclusions based on those answers.” Unfortunately, we all break that promise, don’t we?

For example, in January, a Moore Insight poll had incumbent U.S. Sen. Patty Murray in a virtual tie with undeclared challenger Dino Rossi. Republicans were giddy with excitement.

In April, state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, started making a move. Murray led him by just 46 percent to 44 percent in a SurveyUSA poll. Benton was fist-bumping everyone he could reach. So was Rossi, who had a 52-42 lead on Murray.

Last Wednesday, a Rasmussen poll showed Murray and Rossi in a statistical tie and Murray ahead of Benton 52-38. But also last week, an Elway Poll showed Murray clobbering Rossi 51-34 and beating Benton 51-27.

Interpret those snapshots any way you choose, but nothing will matter until the primary votes are counted.

Don’t celebrate too soon

The same caution is advised when contemplating polls and surveys about issues. On Thursday The Columbian reported that 61 percent of 600 survey respondents strongly favored or somewhat favored C-Tran’s 20-year development plan, which includes a sales tax increase that would pay for maintenance and operation of a light-rail extension into Clark County.

Predictably, this sent the light-rail enthusiasts leaping into fits of ecstasy while the Hounds of Whinerville went yelping into hibernation under the porch. Both sides, though, were overreacting.

Light-rail advocates could use that number to insist that opposition to light rail is confined to a small but loud group of complainers. But the complainers could point to a 2-to-1 repudiation of light rail by voters in 1995, the most recent number of any official consequence, and would argue that the C-Tran survey’s sample size was tiny. Nothing is resolved, so let’s review the question: “Are we interested in the answers of 600 people contacted by the pollster C-Tran hired?” And the promise: “We won’t jump to conclusions.”

Two years ago I reported a crucial side issue about polls that bears repeating. Most polls are conducted using telephone land lines. Meanwhile, society continues its shift to use of cell phones only. In 2008, about 14.5 percent of Americans were essentially eliminated from most polling pools because they had dropped land-line telephones. The Pew Research Center said those people were significantly younger than poll participants. In July 2008, Pew reported, Barack Obama led John McCain 46 percent to 41 percent among land-line users but held a 61-32 lead in the cell-phone-only crowd.

Using all of those facts, and after learning that the C-Tran survey contacted few (if any) cell-phone users, and committing the sin of jumping to conclusions, I’m guessing that the 61 percent approval of light rail might be a little low since the hip and visionary cell-phone users weren’t included.

Oops, I’m violating my own rules now, aren’t I? Polls are fun, but not final. Enjoy them, but be careful, and remember this rather flimsy boast: My last opponent on the golf course finished next-to-last.

John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.