Polls are in demand, but require great care

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 23, 2012 - 6:56 AM

Here's how we're going about the process in this contentious year.

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This year, the most divisive fight in Minnesota is not over whom to elect for public office, but whether the state Constitution should be amended to define marriage as an institution between one man and one woman.

That's a question we also put to Minnesotans in our poll, which marks the 68th year that we have polled residents across the state about their lifestyles and their politics. The very nature of this question illustrates the value of continuing to poll for nearly seven decades; we can capture changing family, societal and political views as they evolve over time. One could not imagine asking that question in 1944, the year we first started polling.

It's also the reason we have continued to find resources to continue polling, even though many newspapers have abandoned polls as too expensive.

For weeks now, leaders in the community have been asking when they would see a Star Tribune poll, given the nature of the election year we are facing. We picked our moment carefully. Ideally, we would have published a poll immediately after Labor Day. But we didn't want to be in the field in the immediate wake of either of the two major political conventions, because that may have skewed the results.

We also spent extensive time researching the various polling vendors available to us, and the types of polling they offered. Political editor Pat Lopez, and Dennis McGrath, who oversees the polling, examined a number of options, taking care to look at pollsters' reputation for unbiased work, the use of cellphones vs. land lines, and how they weight their results. Price was also a factor, because we still use people, rather than automation, to make the phone calls.

This year, we selected Mason-Dixon, which has a quarter of a century of experience polling in all 50 states, and which has extensive experience working with newspapers. Some of the organization's current clients include the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Salt Lake Tribune, Lee Newspapers of Montana, and the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat & Chronicle. Mason-Dixon also polls for a group of Florida newspapers and TV stations that include the Miami Herald, Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9.

We are also considering, for the first time, supplementing our in-depth polls with automated polling for simple horse-race questions. We have not made a decision on this matter, but if we do, such results would not carry the Minnesota Poll brand.

Every year, without fail, someone accuses us of bias in how we poll. After many years of working with polls, I know that nearly every pollster has different methodology. It's not an exact science. For that reason, we want to be very transparent about how we are polling.

The newsroom suggested the questions we want to ask, and we worked with Mason-Dixon's experts to frame those questions in a way that does not lead the respondents in any particular direction. For example, the amendment questions were phrased exactly as they will appear on the ballot on Election Day. The methodology of the poll will be published in print and online, starting today, for readers to examine.

"The important caveat with polls," Lopez said, " is that they are a snapshot, not a predictor." Polls give us insight into how the electorate is leaning and thinking at any given time, but they always carry a margin of error. Individual views also morph and change through the election cycle right up until the day people walk into the voting booth. Sometimes, pollsters know, respondents aren't always truthful about their real intents.

Still, "through polling it's possible to determine which political party appears to have an edge and where voters in the middle might be heading," Lopez said. "The noise of TV punditry and the talking points of candidates can sometimes cloud which issues average voters most care about."

Polling allows us to focus our reporting plans and to bolster our stories with hard data, so we don't have to rely on anecdotal reports and campaignmeisters' spin. "Through polling," McGrath said, "we reach in a scientific way the people who don't turn out at rallies, and who don't stick campaign signs into their front lawns." And they allow us to see what is most important to residents at a given period in history.

Polling also helps us tell whether the enthusiasm we see on the campaign trail is real or manufactured.

In 1998, McGrath recalled, "Jesse Ventura was turning out ever-larger crowds in the final weeks of the election, especially among young voters. But was it all just a show put on by a master showman? Our polling, in fact, confirmed that his support was growing and that he was within striking distance of pulling off an upset. Our headline in that Sunday paper before the Tuesday election was: 'The stretch run: It's up for grabs.'

"Some readers may not have believed that poll, but they did by Election Night."

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Nancy Barnes is the Star Tribune's editor.

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