How push polls pervert politics

Voting booth“There are lies, damn lies and statistics,” goes the old saying. It has always been true that statistics can be presented in ways that are highly deceptive and intentionally misleading.

A Midwestern city might truthfully claim that its average temperature is a perfect 74 degrees — just like the Hawaiian Islands.  It could be technically true, except that the deviation from that temperature in the sub-tropical climate isn’t very great, while the Midwestern city might swing from below freezing in the winter to triple-digit heat in the summer. That comfortable-sounding “average” is sure not the full story.

Still, for susceptibility to manipulation, statistics don’t hold a candle to polling — especially political polling.  During this primary season in California, the various candidates are releasing reams of polling to show how far ahead they are of their competitors.  Two different polls can show diametrically opposite results, with one candidate showing he or she is leading 80 percent to 20 percent over an opponent while the opponent might claim to be ahead by a margin of 90 to 10.

The credibility of political polling took a huge hit in the last presidential election. Virtually all the polling showed Hillary Clinton coasting to a relatively easy victory over Donald Trump.  In fact, his path to victory in the Electoral College was so narrow that he would have to “run the table” in every swing state — something all the pundits said was next to impossible.

What’s particularly odd about that election is that even the good polls were wrong. And by good polls we mean those administered by pollsters who don’t have a political agenda.  Good pollsters will admit that their reputations depend on being accurate in their predictions.

The lesson here is that voters need to take any polling with a grain of salt. That is especially true when the polling is paid for by an interest group.

One recent example makes this clear. There has been a recent push by supporters of higher taxes to impose a statewide “fee” on the monthly water bills of all water users — homeowners and businesses — to pay for programs to deal with contaminated water supplies.  Interestingly, the opposition to the proposal includes both the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, two groups frequently at odds over water-rate practices.  But here, both groups have deep concerns about the state intruding in an area best left to local government interests. …

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