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Don't Ask Me

Other critics are quite willing to lecture. "So here we are in the middle of a vicious vortex," Arianna Huffington, a self-proclaimed "enemy" of polling, writes in her syndicated newspaper column. "Pollsters conduct their increasingly inaccurate polls; the media then report the results as if Moses has just brought them down from the mountaintop; and our politicians tailor their messages to suit phantom voters. . . . Relying on polls is so much easier than actually reporting or leading."

Other critics of the media question the degree to which polls have become crutches, enabling reporters to write authoritatively about campaigns they haphazardly follow and wax broadly on the mood of the electorate without having to talk to many actual voters.

After the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a poll showing John Kerry with a 9-point lead over the president, pro-Bush demonstrators gathered outside its offices demanding that Rob Daves, the newspaper's pollster, be fired. (Minneapolis Star Tribune)

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Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and former media critic for the Los Angeles Times, expresses a deeply ambivalent view of polls.

On the one hand, there's something addictive about polls and poll numbers. "We want to know who's going to win. It's human nature. It's fun," Rosenstiel says. But there are too many, and they have become "the weeds that threaten to take over the garden."

Nor does he find them particularly useful. "There is no polling story that you will read in January through November that will help you decide which candidate will be a better president. Not one. It doesn't mean polls aren't legitimate, but keep them in proportion."

Still a Valuable Tool

But wait, pollsters say. For all their problems, surveys remain the best and most accurate way to measure public attitudes -- and one of the few ways that typical Americans can make their voices heard over special interests, the pundits and fat-cat campaign contributors.

Pre-election polls in 2000 were the most accurate in nearly three decades. Pollsters point to data showing that in 2002, nearly nine out of 10 candidates who were ahead in surveys conducted immediately before the election ended up winning, with the overwhelming majority of these polls coming within 3 percentage points of the winner's victory margin.

But that's not the story that critics like to tell. "After an election, there is one story that makes news: why a poll was wrong, not whether it was right," says Lee M. Miringoff of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. "But the truth is that the polls, for most of our lifetime, have been hitting it on the head."

And although polling may be troubled, few believe it is on the ropes -- at least not yet.

"I'm pretty optimistic about the future of polling," says Elizabeth Martin, past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. "The mechanism has constantly evolved, often in response to problems. I think we will find ways to continue to survive."

Others hope that they can turn the tide of public scorn that seems to be engulfing the polling profession.

"Survey research is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise these days that informs countless decisions made by government and by private enterprise and plays a central role in academic study of the nature of humanity and contemporary life," says Stanford's Krosnick.

If the public only knew the value of polls, he says, "people may be much quicker to participate as respondents."

And less likely to hang up the phone.

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