DES MOINES — Christopher Budzisz and David Redlawsk make their living, in part, by producing election polls for public consumption.
Yet both would like people to exercise restraint in their poll intake and interpretation.
“Recognize the limitations of polling,” said Budzisz, director of the Loras College Poll and a political science professor at the Dubuque school. “Which is kind of interesting to hear from someone who’s doing polling.”
Polls often drive political discussion during campaigns, including the race to the White House currently enveloping Iowa. Poll results help frame media coverage of the campaign: who’s winning, who’s moving up and down, who’s struggling to gain traction.
But there are many caveats to consider when viewing poll results, experts say.
To discuss the challenges of conducting polls on political campaigns, the Quad-City Times Des Moines Bureau interviewed three pollsters in Iowa who are polling or observing the race leading to the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses: Budzisz, director of the Loras College Poll; Redlawsk, who directs the Rutgers University Eagleton Poll and is in Iowa for the caucuses serving as a fellow at Drake University; and J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., which publishes the highly regarded Iowa Poll.
What to keep in mind
The first warning most pollsters give is that poll results are not crystal balls. Polls do not predict the future; rather, they provide a snapshot at a specific point in time.
For example: Selzer and Budzisz produced new polls last week on the presidential races. Both showed Ted Cruz leading the Republican field, passing previous front-runner Donald Trump.
That does not mean, Budzisz said, those polls are suggesting Cruz will win the Iowa caucuses in a month and a half. It means simply that right now, more likely Republican caucus-goers say they plan to support Cruz.
“When you poll, it’s not as though you’re saying, ‘This is what the future is.’ Rather, you’re saying this is a snapshot of the present,” Budzisz said. “When we put out a poll, it’s not that we’re saying that Ted Cruz is going to win the caucus. What we’re saying is of this sample of people who are likely caucus-goers, this is what they’re telling us in this time period.”
The trio of experts also said journalists and the public should be wary of some polls, that not all are trustworthy.
Some polls use shoddy methods to obtain their data, which can skew results, the experts said.
“There are crap polls out there, and unfortunately for the voters and the media, you guys often don’t distinguish,” Redlawsk said. “That’s the thing that really strikes me … realizing the explosion of stuff that’s just not very good.”
Some poll-compiling methods can sacrifice good poll results, the experts said, such as using automated calls instead of human interviewers or not properly identifying likely voters or caucus-goers.
The experts cautioned to be wary of polls put out by a candidate’s campaign, because campaigns will make public only those polls that show results to their liking; or national polls, because they give no indication of voter sentiment in the important primary states; or polls that decline to publicize their methodology.
“The best polling will be as transparent as possible,” Budzisz said. “The expectation by the public should be transparency. And that should be the expectation of the media as well.”
Getting sufficient data to produce results that represent the electorate can be challenging, experts say.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is finding enough respondents who are likely to vote or participate in the caucuses and are willing to stay on the phone long enough to complete the survey.
In Iowa, where it seems the next election is always right around the corner, polling fatigue can be a real hurdle for pollsters.
“I cannot tell you that we have data that says this is that much of an issue for us,” Selzer said. "I will say, anecdotally, people tell me all the time that they’re tired of it and they say they stop answering polls."
Selzer said although people tell her they participate in the Iowa Poll because it is “a known quantity,” she worries about polling fatigue, particularly this year with the historically large field of Republican candidates. That's because polling organizations are not alone in surveying the race. Many campaigns, independent fundraising organizations that support candidates and issue advocacy groups also are calling voters to gauge their opinions.
Budzisz said he understood the difficulty of developing sufficient responses for poll results, but he gained a new understanding when he took command of the Loras Poll when it was created in the 2014 campaign.
“Nowadays response rates are in the single digits,” Budzisz said. “It causes some real nightmares for polling, in terms of, ‘Are we really capturing the sentiment of the voters?’”
Despite those challenges and others, the experts said they remain confident in polling and the information it gives political watchers.
“The evidence remains pretty good that, even with all these challenges — cellphones, fatigue, people just not wanting to talk — we’re getting a pretty good read on what voters are thinking,” Redlawsk said. “We’re still doing a pretty good job, I think. … The polling industry in general, I think.”