Most Read: Politics

Behind the Numbers
Posted at 08:16 PM ET, 03/29/2010

What are the odds? A Murtha rates Pelosi...

When we conduct a public opinion survey, we call a totally random sampling of telephone numbers in the United States, including listed and unlisted numbers and cellphones. We talk to around 1,000 adults each time out; getting responses from rich, from poor, from tea partiers and from people of all stripes. We may have called you.

This randomness is the key that unlocks the statistical power of polls; it's an approach that allows interviews with 1,000 or so adults to "stand for," or represent the views more than 200 million adults living in the country ... plus or minus.

In the latest Washington Post poll we happened to poll a 52-year-old man in Orlando who also agreed to a follow-up interview for a story about the results. His name is John Murtha. (He was not alone; as is typical, more than six in 10 respondents agreed to a "callback" conversation.)

We quoted Murtha in a story that included new approval ratings of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Some Capitol Hill watchers took quick note, as the late congressman John P. Murtha (D-PA) was a strong Pelosi ally in the Congress before his death in February. (Fishbowl DC here.) One implication of these stories was that the respondent might have pulled one over on a hapless Post with a phony name; another, lighter version was that we'd summoned the deceased. (Here, here and here.)

John Murtha in Orlando is a real person. We spoke with him again this afternoon. He happens to be the son of the late congressman.

Before publication, a reporter mistakenly believed there was no connection between the two Murthas; if known and the quote used, the information would have been included in the story.

The son, who says he's never previously taken part in a survey, is entitled, like all others in the country, to express opinions. He is happy he did, saying he "agrees with both sides on certain issues" and "I'm glad I get to put my opinion out there. I'm not my father. I'm my own person."

We thank him, and all our past (and future) respondents.

By  |  08:16 PM ET, 03/29/2010

Categories:  Post Polls

Read what others are saying

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company