03/31/2008 01:48 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Polls: A Year to Be Wary?

Can you guess which presidential election gave us this headline and lead?:


ONCE in a while, all pollsters should take the kind of beating we took in the primaries, just to maintain equilibrium," says Don Muchmore, board chairman of Opinion Research of California, one of the many polling firms that came a cropper in one or more of this year's presidential primaries.

The phrase "came a cropper" probably gives it away. The year was 1964 when this article in appeared in Time. I was all of 17 months old (my own world had been rocked the previous day, or so I am told, by the birth of my brother...but I digress). In a bit of Internet serendipity, I stumbled on the article yesterday when Googling the name of Oliver Qualyle (Lyndon Johnson's pollster) for the previous item. It is worth reading in full, if only for the perspective it provides on 2008.

It is striking how many of the issues of polling in 1964 -- when most political surveys were conducted in person by interviewers that went door-to-door to select respondents -- remain the same in 2008. The topic of "likely voters" was just a confusing: In 1964, Time reported, pre-election polling techniques "vary considerably from pollster to pollster" and the researchers had "not yet licked" their "inability to assess the probable voter turnout." The Time article also includes a discussion of whether "people lie to the pollsters" on the issue of "race relations" in a year when that issue seemed "particularly important."

On the other hand, on at least one issue, polling has come nearly full circle. In 1964, the concept of random sampling was not yet universally accepted among American pollsters. The article cites a "trend towards 'randomization'" among the pollsters and then, perhaps unknowingly, lists various departures from random sampling in their techniques, such as Gallup's practice, circa '64, of instructing interviewers to "skip some corner houses on the theory that corner property is higher-priced and its occupants are likely to be more affluent than their neighbors."

Today the controversy over random sampling is whether rates of non-response are so high as to render true random sampling impossible, leading some pollsters to return to various departures from true "randomization" such as the use of volunteer online panels.

Back to a polling evergreen. Are polls "reliable enough" to justify their high costs?

In probing general attitudes toward candidates and issues, they undoubtedly come close enough to be of value to campaign strategists. When it comes to calling elections, most of the pollsters insist that they do not make predictions, merely measure the popularity of candidates at a given point in time. In the post-mortems they are, of course, the first to boast when they hit one right. But that seems fair enough, since they take a beating when they are wrong.

By the way, the entire Time archive of articles published since 1923 is now available online to non-subscribers. Happy searching.