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Washington Matters

What's the Matter with Polls?

Most of us have long stopped thinking about how badly -- and how uniformly -- the polls screwed up the results of the Democratic presidential race in New Hampshire. But people who take and study polls for a living sure haven't. The American Association for Public Opinion Research was so rattled by the results there that it sent a team to monitor polls and actual election results in South Carolina. Now it's decided to monitor pre-election polling in all the 22 Super Tuesday states and set up an ad hoc committee to try to figure out what happened. A report is due in April.

Anyone who follows politics follows polls, so it's a good idea to have some familiarity with how polls work and what their limits and faults are. The AAPOR is a good place to start. It has a FAQ page that explains everything from "push polling" to the margin of error.

For the obsessed, nothing tops It keeps tabs on every major national and statewide poll and examines political developments through the lens of polls. Mark Blumenthal, who was a respected Democratic pollster for more than 20 years before starting up the site, has a keen eye for spotting developments often overlooked even by seasoned political reporters. For example, how many people know that polling in the Democratic South Carolina primary was far more off the mark than that done in New Hampshire? Nobody much noticed because Obama won as forecast ... but by a margin three times larger than predicted.