Election Polls: How Are They Conducted, and How Accurate Are They?

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The election is right around the corner, and the words “The Latest Poll Numbers Show…” are likely familiar ones to voters.

And Matt Grossmann, Associate Professor of Political Science at Michigan State University, said that polls are generally accurate at this point in the year.

“Late in the campaign, a candidate with a lead of three or four percentage points in multiple polls is quite likely to win the election,” Grossmann said.

Epic MRA, a polling service based in Lansing, generally conducts their interviews via live-caller, but said that results of their polls differ with other methods. John Cavanagh, co-founder of Epic-MRA, said the popularity of cell phones has not helped the accuracy of these polls.

The reason for the difficulty is because a person can live in a city with one area code, but have a cell phone from another. For example, a person living in Lansing lives in area code 517, but, if that same person has a cell phone from Battle Creek, the area code would be 269.

“It greatly increases the cost of administering interviews because we spend that much more time finding someone who’s qualified to respond,” Cavanagh said.

Grossmann said that the difference between pollsters who call cell phones and ones who do not is evident.

“We did, for example, see some problems in 2008, and some more in 2012, and we did see a real difference in pollsters who were not calling cell phones,” Grossmann said.

And as far as political bias goes, Cavanagh said it simply would not be a smart business decision to let any political beliefs skew the results.

“We didn’t keep our doors open for 20 years by tossing out wishful thinking,” Cavanagh said.

There are some populations, however, that go undercounted, and for those populations, there is a process called overweighting. Grossmann said that means those undercounted populations’ responses are counted by one and a half or two percent more.

“That can cause some problems if those people aren’t representative of who we are trying to reach,” Grossmann said.

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