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To Pay or Not to Pay, That Is the Polling Question

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A big debate has been ongoing in the polling business. Should pollsters run political polls for free?

Let's first consider polling as a community service. Many people regularly volunteer their professional services to people who can't afford them. Physicians offer free health care to extremely poor people, lawyers offer free legal assistance to people who've been denied fair treatment, and contractors provide free home maintenance to elderly people who might otherwise be forced out of home. It's all in the name of giving back to the community that has done so much for them.

The work that political pollsters do for free could also be considered a benefit to society. People need to know how their political candidates are ranked by the public so that they can make better voting decisions and bring better-suited people to political power. People ought to know how the general public has reacted to each candidate after each television appearance, each blunder, and each victory on the campaign trail. Every day. Every hour. Every second.

Actually, no. I don't believe that. That's not what polling is for.

People do need to know each candidate's platform, and their opinions regarding planned, fair questions. As curious as the general public may be, the aggregated opinions of neighbors, friends, and strangers have no bearing on which issues are important to you personally and which candidate would best represent you. Polling, in this sense, is not for the good of the people. Polling, in this sense, is infotainment, and that is not a valid reason for pollsters to work for free.

If polling isn't a community service, then it is definitely a marketing tool. For many research companies, political polling is as much a marketing tool as door-to-door flyers and TV commercials are. By sharing their poll results with TV stations and newspapers, companies can increase their exposure and demonstrate the quality of their skills to thousands or millions of people. Polling could easily be considered part of the advertising budget for them. On the other hand, most media companies can afford to pay for those services. Shouldn't they?

A few political pollsters are paid to do their job. Most, if not all, political candidates are extremely eager to know how the general public perceives them. Candidates need to understand what voters think of them and their platforms so that their campaigns can be adjusted and their odds of winning can be improved. And this means that a poll must be purchased.

But, of course, polls paid for by candidates and their political affiliates are rife with problems. Regardless of the type of research, clients always have the right to dictate the contents of surveys. It is a candidate's right to ensure that the questions in a poll they purchase have the best chance possible of creating sharable results that will sway the public in their favor.

Trustworthy pollsters would immediately identify and correct unfair questions even if it meant the loss of a job. But, less than stellar companies would always be waiting in the wings, ready to take on that job and ask the unfair question. Those unfair questions will ultimately generate biased results that mislead the public. Polls paid for by political parties or people with a political agenda can quickly fall down the slippery slope of substandard processes.

On the other hand, polls conducted without the burden of clients, for free, aren't affected by client money or unconscious desires to please a client. Polls conducted for free can strive for perfect clarity and zero bias.

There is one last thing to consider and it is simple: pollsters should be paid for their work. Let's put aside the fact that horserace polling contributes little to the good of society, that polling belongs in the marketing budget, and that poll questions and results can be consciously or unconsciously biased by paying clients.

Many careers, whether you're a physician, accountant, or contractor, require significant skill and years of training and practice. Being a pollster is no different. Writing survey questions that are clear, unbiased, and comprehensive is an art and a science that takes years to develop. Finding a small group of people that properly mirrors the intended population in terms of demographic variables like age, gender, income, education, race, religion, geography, family size, and language, as well as other potentially important variables such as voting behaviors and political associations, and immigration history takes a team of trained staff and weeks of tedious work to build. Analyzing and interpreting results requires specially trained statisticians who know how to turn intricate data points into valid and reliable hypotheses.

Sometimes, it seems like anyone can generate good poll results. But to do so repeatedly demands time and money. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of billable hours. Thousands of billable hours that could be assigned to a paying client who would keep your business alive.

For me, there is an easy answer to this simple question. Should pollsters be paid? If their work is being used by political parties or media outlets, absolutely yes. If their work is being used by anyone other than themselves, absolutely yes. And on that note, the next time I spend hundreds of hours on a job, I expect to be paid for it too.