The principle of random sampling makes polls truly democratic. We don't speak with any pre-determined individual or group. It can be absolutely anyone - you and me, your Aunt Sadie in Jersey City, your parish priest, your local bookie, the lady across the lunch counter, the guy pounding fenders - anyone. That's why we think that a good poll, honestly done, represents the true voice of average Americans in a unique and irreplaceable way.
Nobody I Know Says That
People tend to live in relatively homogenous areas and associate in relatively homogenous groups. We tend to share our opinions with like-minded friends and acquaintances. So it shouldn't be surprising if sometimes a poll's result is different from what you and most of the people you talk to think. Your "sample" isn't a national one, and more important, it isn't random.
Remember, too, that a national poll is representative of the entire adult population of the country. If "only" 40 percent of Americans support a position, that's still a huge number - around 80 million people.
The Point of Decision
Even when you understand how sampling works, it can be difficult to accept that your opinion can be expressed in a poll in which you weren't personally included. How can they say it represents me, you ask, when they didn't talk to me? Sounds un-American.
The answer is that it's important to differentiate between the opinions we hold, and the way we've arrived at them. We come to our opinions by completely personal and idiosyncratic routes - where and how we were raised, our faiths, our family and friends, our education and knowledge, and more. Polls do not capture this information.
However, all these personal paths converge at one place - the point of decision. In an election, for example, we can vote for Candidate A, vote for Candidate B, or not vote. There are no other options. And it's here, at the point of decision, that opinion can be accurately sampled, tabulated and reported in an opinion poll.
Why Similar Polls Find Different Results
Sampling error is the least likely source of differences in polls - question wording, question order, the poll's timing and data interpretation are more often at play.
Polls agree far more often than they disagree: Differently worded questions on the same subject usually get about the same results, so long as they've been asked in a neutral, balanced and fair way, and important developments haven't intervened.
Nonetheless, in a poll as in any interview, you only get answers to the questions you've asked. Use loaded words, leave out an important element, or include biased information, and you can get different answers. Remember, too, that no single poll represents the final word on any subject. When honest polls on the same subject do differ, that's not contradiction; it's additional information, from which we can learn more.
The danger in polling - as in any news reporting - is in asking leading questions or producing slanted analysis. That's why we at ABCNEWS conduct our own polls, rather than relying on possibly biased surveys that may be sponsored by groups with an interest in the outcome.
We also publicly release our full questionnaires and findings. You're welcome to read them, check out exactly what we've asked and compare the results to our conclusions.
Polls Around Us