Poll Power

Source Organization: Pew Research Center

Author: Scott Keeter, Director of Survey Research, Pew Research Center


10/17/2008 - As the votes were counted on the night of this past January's New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, pollsters and other professionals in the political game began to grapple with an uncomfortable fact: Virtually all of them had been dead wrong. Despite unanimous poll results predicting a Barack Obama victory (by an average of eight percentage points) on the heels of Sen. Obama's surprising triumph in the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton was going to emerge the winner.

The New Hampshire debacle was not the most significant failure in the history of public-opinion polling, but it joined a list of major embarrassments that includes the Florida exit polling in the 2000 presidential election, which prompted several networks to project an Al Gore victory, and the national polls in the 1948 race, which led to perhaps the most famous headline in U.S. political history: "Dewey Defeats Truman." After intense criticism for previous failures and equally intense efforts by pollsters to improve their techniques, this was not supposed to happen.

New Hampshire gave new life to many nagging doubts about polling and criticisms of its role in American politics. Are polls really accurate? Can surveys of small groups of people give a true reading of what a much larger group thinks? What about bias? Don't pollsters stack the deck?

Read the full commentary Poll Power on the Pew Research Center Web site.

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