Why Online Polls Are Bunk

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Jan. 12 2000 3:30 AM

Why Online Polls Are Bunk

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Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

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As long as they are meant as entertainment, and as long as users understand what their results communicate, there's no reason to lose much sleep over online polls. What is worrisome is the failure of pollsters themselves to learn from the history of their profession. Even if they bill themselves as "voting sites" rather than "polling sites," Web sites such as Dick Morris' Vote.com tacitly imply that the results of their online polls are reliable and valid. Otherwise, why would Morris bother to send Vote.com's results to members of Congress?

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Another online pollster, Harris Interactive, is using its Harris Poll Online to learn about the public's views on the 2000 election. In order to overcome socioeconomic bias, Harris is using what is known as "quota sampling," which ensures that the poll's respondents are an accurate reflection of the population's demographics. Quota sampling assumes that the answers of a particular demographic group such as white, 18-to-25-year-old Internet users can be projected to describe the opinions of white 18-to-25-year-olds at large. This technique was in widespread use until 1948, when the major national polls based on this technique all predicted that Republican Thomas E. Dewey would defeat incumbent Democrat Harry S. Truman.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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