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Behind the Numbers: Polls in Va. Governor's Race Haven't Met Post's Standards

Robopolls have limitations. People are generally less tolerant of long interviews with computerized voices. One recent Virginia robopoll asked six questions about the governor's race; the other asked four. The last time The Post polled a Virginia gubernatorial election, in October 2005, the questionnaire included dozens of queries about the race, as well as a series of "screening" items to determine who might actually turn out to vote.

Lost in the brevity is much, if any, substance. Neither of the two in Virginia asked about the top issues in the race, what candidate attributes matter most or anything about the economy. Without this essential context, these thin polls offer little more than an uncertain horse race number. In understanding public opinion, "why" voters feel certain ways is crucially important.

Like most media pollsters, campaign pollsters use other methods to add depth. Asked if he had used the technology, Joel Benenson, Obama's chief pollster, said, "No and I wouldn't. [Automated] polls are typically very short and campaign polls tend to be very strategic and longer. I think live contact helps keep voters engaged on these polls." Bill McInturff, lead pollster on John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, said he does not use robopolls for campaigns.

The internal Moran poll that his campaign put out to counter the notion that McAuliffe had opened up a lead included 39 questions; four were released.

As a group, robopolls have a growing number of adherents who point to evidence that the method has shown "success" at coming close to election results. "I have an impression that [automated] preelection polling has been surprisingly accurate in recent years," said Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor.

There's a brewing battle among survey researchers about whether polls can be judged by how they perform in the final stages of campaigns. But until more research shows the validity of robopolls, we will continue to steer a careful path in our reporting.

-- Jon Cohen

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