Are polls less professional than ever?

Polls conducted in Internet panels are very impersonal and very non-committal.

Knesset Channel poll result (photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
Knesset Channel poll result
(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
When pollsters and academics talk about how the polling industry has changed, they cite two main developments: The takeover of the Internet and that of the media.
Both of these developments have had the same impact: They made polls quicker, cheaper, less professional, accurate and reliable.
The impact of the Internet takeover is more obvious. Unlike in the past, when polls were conducted by phone – and before that, in face to face interviews, polls conducted in Internet panels are very impersonal and very non-committal.
It is possible to build the same statistical models for online polling as has been used with past methods but with the Internet, the temptation to cut corners has been hard to overcome. Add to that the fact that the media constantly asks for the quickest polls possible to get an answer on a key question or two. The polls are also shallower than ever.
When asked if polls are less reliable than they were in the past, it depends on which ones, according to Tamar Hermann, the academic director of the Guttmann Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute. She said that some polls do not need to be hurried, which allows a more accurate model to be built. The sample size is larger and data from people who do not provide full, committed responses can be discarded to increase the accuracy.
Better-quality polls tend to be requested by candidates and academic institutions. The media need a response immediately, so Internet polls are the only ones that do not properly represent different sectors of Israeli society online.
“Because of technology, it has become easier and cheaper than ever to do polls at the touch of a button that are not professional and consequently are less accurate,” Hermann said. “When there were developments in the past, it took a while for the dust to settle, before people asked about them. I am against doing it quickly. But there’s pressure from the media outlets for quick answers.”
Asked about polls taken after the December 29 formation of the New Right Party that predicted from six to 14 seats, she said that one pollster might have used the Internet and another his or her phone.
“The rules of the profession are not being kept as strictly as they used to be,” Hermann said. “It has become mass produced.”
In a final criticism, Hermann said that nowadays, party loyalty changes faster and this is based on passing fads. Between polling and the actual elections, many trends will come and go.
Mitchell Barak of Keevoon Global Strategies, who conducts polls in dozens of countries, said that unlike the polls with two to four questions that are seen on TV, the latest polls questioned anywhere from 60 to 99 people.
For instance, Barak said that a survey should not progress without determining how likely respondents are to vote and how strongly they feel about the party.
“Polls are more reliable and credible than ever, but they’re not doing those polls,” Barak said. “The polls they’re doing are not serious. They are doing Internet panels that are not representative or reliable. You see the current popularity litmus test, which is meaningless.”
Barak said that the media was artificially building up the candidacy of former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, which has helped him gain support in polls that are not based on substantial evidence.
He said he expects such numbers will go back down when negative campaigning intensifies. He also cautioned against counting out longtime parties with traditional loyalist bases like Labor and Bayit Yehudi.
Hermann expressed hope that online polling will become more accurate over time, in part because more elderly and haredim will have Internet access.
“As time passes, it will get better,” she said. “I think the current situation is temporary.”