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Polling: a look inside the machinery of public opinion surveys

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With the media's dependence on poll numbers – and the sheer frequency with which those numbers are collected – news consumers must educate themselves about which surveys provide valuable data and why.

"Polling is important because it gives every voter and every nonvoter an equal chance of having their voice represented," says Scott Keeter, the director of survey research at the Pew Research Center. "When properly done, without bias and malice, polls can give you a view of what the public is experiencing or wanting, which you don't get from interest groups or the candidates or even elections, which are very blunt instruments."

Gallup – by the estimation of most in the industry – consistently generates quality data. Editors with the 77-year-old privately held survey company agreed to let the Monitor take an inside look at the process of putting together its June political poll, which assessed the role of religion in the presidential race as well as a range of other matters, including public views on the economy and the two men who want to lead this nation.

The 10-day endeavor of creating and conducting the poll involved Gallup staff in four states and Washington, D.C. Their work shows how important the human element is in shaping and thoughtfully interpreting a survey. Their efforts also illuminate the many junctures at which polls can be manipulated by those more interested in spinning numbers.

For example, question-crafting and order of questions when asked are vital to a valid survey. So are well-trained callers, like Mr. Jablonski, and the quality controls that guard their practices. Proper balance of land lines and cellphones matters in collecting a representative sample. How a data set is weighted – or made, via statistical calculations, to resemble the adult population of the nation – on the back end is critical, too.

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