02/13/2009 01:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hill on Pollster Ethics

In his The Hill column this week, Republican pollster David Hill ponders the changes to the polling profession that have resulted from the lower barriers to entry wrought by technology and the growing number of pollsters with little academic training in the profession or "immersion in the history and ethics of polling." He commends the recent censure of a Johns Hopkins researcher by the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) and calls for others to step up and play the role of "poll police." It's worth a read.

This point from Hill's column is worth highlighting. His definition of "pollster," in this instance, extends to firms like his that conduct "internal" surveys on behalf of political campaigns:

New pollsters nowadays are most often plucked from the ranks of young swashbuckling operatives. The polling firm hires them for their aggressive promise and runs them through an in-house apprenticeship. I once made a hire like this. As an alternative to on-the-job training, I sent him to the University of Michigan for a program designed to instruct journalists in the art and science of polling. It was probably better than nothing when it came to inculcating proper values about polling.

There is no inherent justification for pollsters with an operative background to have coarser principles than researchers with academic training. Yet I have observed that it happens that way most of the time. In particular, outbreaks of over-the-top, push-polling-variety questions most always emanate from pollsters with little formal training, except in the school of hard knocks. But, to be fair, it must be acknowledged that one of the few pollsters ever formally censured by a professional organization was an Oxford-trained Ph.D.

I can certainly see both sides of this issue. My own entry into the polling profession fell somewhere in between the two paths Hill describes. I was no Ph.D., but rather a recent college graduate with an "operative" background, having been a field organizer on a recent presidential campaign. On the other hand, my undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan provided an exposure to the "history and ethics" of polling, if not an immersion, and I had the good fortune to apprentice with a firm where the partners and senior staff had just such a background.

And Hill has a point here: I learned politics from campaigns but polling from academics and professionals with academic training. Had it been the other way around, my professional judgement would be very different.

Hill's timing on this question is good, if only because of the week-long dialogue we have planned starting next Tuesday around the new book, Dispatches from the War Room , by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. I will have more detail next week, but Greenberg will be joining us for a blogging conversation about the new book and, in particular, his own thoughts about the polling profession and its future. Stay tuned.