Three dozen protesters gathered outside the Minneapolis Star Tribune building a month ago. They glowered and pounded on the windows. They carried signs calling the newspaper the "Star and Sickle." They shouted "Liberal!" at staffers leaving the building.
A few days before the demonstration, Ron Eibensteiner, chairman of the state Republican Party, had demanded that the publisher fire Rob Daves, the paper's longtime pollster.
"Hey, hey, ho, ho, Rob Daves has got to go!" the pickets chanted.
A few days later, Eibensteiner amended that request: If you will not fire Daves, at least suspend the paper's 60-year-old Minnesota Poll until after the election.
Daves's offense: a poll the previous week suggested that Democrat John Kerry led President Bush by 9 percentage points in Minnesota while subsequent surveys by others suggested a tie or a narrower Kerry lead.
It's tough being a pollster these days, even in Minnesota. "It's the rhetoric of mean-spiritedness, and it's just gotten worse and worse and worse," says Daves, a mild-mannered North Carolina native.
Across the country, other pollsters are hearing similarly smash-mouth attacks. "The polls are wrong. They are all over the map like diarrhea," rages filmmaker Michael Moore, who took time out from bashing Bush to bash the polls in a posting on his Web site. "You are being snookered if you believe any of these polls."
Last month, the independent liberal group MoveOn.org attacked the venerable Gallup Organization in a full-page advertisement in the New York Times.
"Why Does America's Top Pollster Keep Getting It Wrong?" the headline fumed. The advertisement attacked the way Gallup defines likely voters for including too many Republicans and took a swipe at George Gallup Jr., son of the poll's founder and an evangelical Christian who no longer plays a role in the company.
"Never saw anything like it," says veteran pollster Andrew Kohut. "People have their guns drawn to a greater extent than usual and they're shooting at us."
This year's election-fueled furies are only the latest woes to befall the polling profession, already under siege and, some fear, on its way to extinction.
As the director of polling for The Washington Post, I join my fellow pollsters in the hospitality rooms at professional meetings to drink cheap wine and listen as they talk nervously about the present and agonize about the future:
Two consecutive Election Day debacles have shaken public confidence in exit polls, once viewed as the crown jewel of political surveys.
Cell phones, Caller ID and increasingly elaborate call screening technologies make it harder than ever to reach a random sample of Americans. Prompted by the popularity of do-not-call lists, a few state legislatures are considering laws that would lump pollsters in with telemarketers and bar them from calling people at home.
Costs are soaring as cooperation rates remain at or near record lows. In some surveys, less than one in five calls produces a completed interview -- raising doubts whether such polls accurately reflect the views of the public or merely report the opinions of stay-at-home Americans who are too bored, too infirm or too lonely to hang up.
Shrinking Response Rates
Rick Klaastad, 41, of Springfield, Ore., had been working as a telephone interviewer on opinion polls for about a year when he dialed a number and an elderly man answered the phone.
"He declined to be interviewed," recalls Klaastad, who works for TNS of Horsham, Pa., the research firm that conducts the Washington Post-ABC News surveys. "But apparently he has some electronic device attached to the phone and the next thing I hear was this loud, painful sound. It was about as bad as it gets -- imagine turning an FM stereo up full blast with a really good set of speakers. It bruised my eardrum."
Not all Americans say no so rudely -- or painfully. But far more refuse to participate in surveys today than a few decades ago. In the 1960s, it was common for two-thirds of those contacted to complete a telephone survey. But participation dropped steeply through the 1980s and early 1990s, when it appears to have leveled off.
No surveys are immune. "Phone surveys are suffering, but so are response rates to mail surveys and even mall intercept surveys" in which people are interviewed while shopping, says Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago, the best source of data on social trends in the United States. "All of the dominoes are being knocked down because the whole table is being shaken."
Currently cooperation rates hover at about 38 percent for the big national media surveys conducted over several days, but can dip down into the teens for surveys completed in a single night, says Jon Krosnick, a psychologist at Stanford University who has completed a groundbreaking study of response rates.
Even exit polls are feeling the pinch. In each of the past three presidential elections the proportion of people who agree to be interviewed after leaving the voting booth has dropped -- from 60 percent in 1992 to 55 percent in 1996 to 51 percent in 2000.
For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that high response rates equaled high-quality, more accurate surveys. Generations of pollsters-in-training were told in graduate school that the people who decline to participate in a poll, or cannot be reached, could be different than those who are contacted, in ways that would affect results.
Two converging trends -- the rise of telemarketing and growing time pressures in the home -- have frayed America's nerves and left many people unwilling or downright hostile when it comes to talking to pollsters. But a bigger problem seems to be that people are simply harder to reach. They're working longer, going out more and using call-screening devices when they're home, Krosnick says.
If anemic response rates are polling's dirty little secret, new research suggests this dirty little truth: It may not matter much -- at least not yet.
Last year Krosnick collected data from the five largest media polling operations, including The Washington Post, to determine what impact response rates had on the results.
"As far as I can tell, those who don't participate in surveys are busy people or people who maybe are unhappy with being deluged by telemarketers. But either way, it doesn't seem to be powerfully correlated with the kinds of things people measure in polls. Missing those people doesn't distort our predictions appreciably."
Some research organizations are taking extraordinary steps to increase response rates. Last year, Nielsen Media Research saturated Chicago with slick advertisements designed to raise public awareness of the company and increase the likelihood that people would participate in its media usage surveys.
The ads were deliberately over-the-top. One featured a gaggle of Elvis impersonators. Another starred a pouty-lipped, slightly disheveled hunk in sunglasses above the caption: "What do you see? No matter what you see, tell us what you watch," and identified the sponsor as the Nielsen Ratings: "We listen to TV viewers."
The ads were plastered in bus shelters, on the El trains and billboards, in local newspapers and the Chicago editions of national magazines. Nielsen researchers surveyed about 1,000 randomly selected area residents before and after the three-month campaign to measure how effective it had been.
In a presentation last May at the annual meeting of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, Nielsen's lead research analyst, Ana Melgar, reported the results: "Nothing changed. Not one bit. There were no differences, in terms of name awareness."
Cell Phones Pose Problems
"Anybody who believes these national political polls are giving you facts is a gullible fool," columnist Jimmy Breslin opined last month. "Any editors of newspapers or television news shows who use poll results as a story are beyond gullible. On behalf of the public they profess to serve, they are indolent salesmen of falsehoods."
These lying liars lie because pollsters have not found an effective way to reach cell phone users, he wrote. "There are 169 million phones that they didn't even try. This makes the poll nothing more than a fake and a fraud, a shill and a sham."
A growing proportion of Americans are giving up their household telephones for cell phones. And pollsters admit that this is a potentially huge problem. It's currently illegal for a pollster to call a cell phone number. And even if cell users could be easily contacted, many would be loath to surrender precious minutes to answer a pollster's questions.
At the same time, pollsters argue that the proportion of people who use only a cell phone is tiny. There may be 169 million cell phones in purses or strapped to the belts of Americans, but the overwhelming majority are owned by people who still have a traditional telephone in their home and are reachable by pollsters.
Early this year, a face-to-face survey of 2,000 randomly selected adults found that only 2.5 percent had cell phone service and no traditional home phone. The figures were slightly higher among 18- to-24-year-olds and renters, reported Peter Tuckel of Hunter College in New York, which conducted the study with veteran pollster Harry O'Neill.
"It appears that, as of now, [cellular-only] households are not a major impediment to reaching respondents," they concluded. "The problem derives more from call screening, primarily through Caller ID, and respondent refusals."
That's cold comfort for some pollsters. Some see the day when they will have to abandon the telephone and are experimenting with new ways to measure public opinion.
"The people who are using telephone surveys are in denial," pollster John Zogby told Breslin. "It is similar to the '30s, when they first started polling by telephones and there were people who laughed at that and said you couldn't trust them because not everybody had a home phone. Now they try not to mention cell phones. They don't look or listen. They go ahead with a method that is old and wrong."
Zogby's critics quickly noted that his own election polls are done by telephone -- a point that Zogby acknowledged in a contrite statement issued a few days after Breslin's column ran. "I still conduct telephone polls," he wrote. "The reality is that polling on the telephone is becoming more difficult. . . . That said, I feel that representative samples can still be achieved on the phone." He also noted that he was "equally confident that my interactive surveys have reached a point where they are valid."
Zogby is not the first pollster to experiment with doing surveys on the Internet, either out of curiosity or out of desperation that the end of telephone surveys is close at hand.
Knowledge Networks, a Palo Alto-based firm, does surveys over the Internet with randomly selected households that have been previously recruited. If families don't have a home computer or access to the Internet, Knowledge Networks gives them a keyboard and a device that connects them to the Internet and allows them to use their television as a monitor -- a red light comes on when there's a survey to complete.
Harris Interactive now does the widely followed Harris Poll entirely online, contacting adults recruited at other Web sites via pop-up ads. They claim that their surveys are at least as accurate as telephone polls, and about 20 to 25 percent less expensive.
"It's silly to do telephone surveys," says Gordon S. Black of Harris Interactive. For studies targeting groups who are less likely to have computers -- older people, rural residents, minorities -- Internet surveys "aren't the best way to go," he says. But for other surveys, "why bother if the Internet is more accurate and less expensive?"
Do Presidents Listen?
To their most vociferous critics, pollsters have become the puppet masters of American politics. In this formulation, politicians stick wet fingers into the wind of public opinion before they act on matters large and small. This cynical view of politicians as slaves to statistics was easy to believe. During the 1990s, it seemed that a poll-intoxicated President Clinton was basing even the most trivial decision on survey numbers. In one widely reported incident, Clinton dumped a planned vacation on Martha's Vineyard in 1995 and instead went camping in the Tetons after presidential pollster Dick Morris interviewed 10,000 Americans and found that "camping" was the favored presidential vacation among married families with children, a key constituency that Clinton needed to win reelection in 1996.
So entrenched was the view that the pols use polls to formulate policy that scholars only recently have begun to ask whether it's true. Robert Shapiro of Columbia University and Lawrence Jacobs of the University of Minnesota attempted to answer that question, and their initial findings seem to turn conventional wisdom on its head.
The researchers tracked Americans' views on a range of political issues and compared them with the relevant legislation that Congress eventually approved. Twenty years ago, lawmakers did what a majority of Americans wanted about two-thirds of the time, they found. Today, Congress is on the same page with the public only about 40 percent of the time.
The same is true for presidents. President Bush and Congress are cutting taxes at a time that a majority of Americans prefer the money be spent reducing the deficit or on social programs, polling consistently has shown. Shapiro cites Clinton's failed health care plan in 1993 as an example of a policy that reflected the president's and not the public's priorities.
"Polls were not used to put together the plan, polls were used to put together a strategy to sell the plan," Shapiro says.
He said the only time politicians pay much attention to the public's priorities is around Election Day. Shapiro noted that in 1996, "Clinton signed off on welfare reform, a bill he would have otherwise rejected. The Republicans agreed to vote for a minimum wage bill."
But so what? "These are electoral pressures. That is what elections are for," Shapiro says. "This is the one shot the public gets to influence the process. Between elections, politicians don't respond to polls in that way. They collect information to lead or manipulate public opinion to achieve their own political or ideological goals."
After Election Day, the heat's off and politicians go back to pressing their own agendas -- which is exactly what Clinton did in 1996 after he had won reelection.
That summer there was no family camping trip, no hiking, no mountain respite for Clinton. He was back on Martha's Vineyard.
Doing Away With Polls
At least one news organization has decided to stop doing pre-election polls altogether. Not because they're inaccurate but because they're addictive.
"They suck all of the oxygen out of the coverage by reducing the whole thing to who's up and who's down," says Tony Burman, chief news editor of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. "Besides, the methodology is really becoming suspect. The response rate has become low, and reliability has suffered. So we decided not to commission them on our own and be very restrained in covering them."
The CBC abruptly quit pre-election polling in May, weeks before the Canadian national election. The goal, Burman wrote in an e-mail to staff, was "to ensure that more coverage and attention during the campaign will be devoted to the actual issues in front of the electorate -- leaving the determination of actual 'voter preference' to the voters on election day."
Burman urges his counterparts in this country to do the same. "There is a lot of empty coverage in the United States devoted to horse-race polls that just fill up the airtime. It's the quintessential example of lazy journalism." He says he's "not lecturing anyone on it. We're just happy that we're getting the balance right."
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.
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.