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Polls Apart

Polls Apart

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Published by terrabyte
Election season is fast approaching so you can be sure a plethora of polls will soon be adding to the mayhem. Polls educate us in two ways. They tell us what we, or at least the population being polled, think. And, in a more Orwellian sense, they tell us what we should think. Polls are used to guide how the nation is governed. For example, did you know that the unemployment rate is determined from a poll, called the Current Population Survey? Polls are important, so we need to be enlightened consumers of poll results lest we come to “love Big Brother.”
Election season is fast approaching so you can be sure a plethora of polls will soon be adding to the mayhem. Polls educate us in two ways. They tell us what we, or at least the population being polled, think. And, in a more Orwellian sense, they tell us what we should think. Polls are used to guide how the nation is governed. For example, did you know that the unemployment rate is determined from a poll, called the Current Population Survey? Polls are important, so we need to be enlightened consumers of poll results lest we come to “love Big Brother.”

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Published by: terrabyte on May 09, 2011
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Polls Apart
Election season is fast approaching so you can be sure a pletheraof polls will soon be adding to the mayhem. Polls educate us intwo ways. They tell us what we, or at least the population beingpolled, think. And, in a more Orwellian sense, they tell us whatwe
should 
think. Polls are used to guide how the nation isgoverned. For example, did you know that the U.S.unemployment rate is determined from a monthly poll, called theCurrent Population Survey? Polls are important, so we need to beenlightened consumers of poll results lest we come to
love BigBrother.
 The growth of polling has been exponential, following theevolution of the computer and statistical software.Before 1990,the Gallup Organization was pretty much the only organizationconducting presidential approval polls. Now, there are severaldozen. On average, there were only one or two presidentialapproval polls conducted per month. Within a decade, thatnumber had increased to more than a dozen. These pollsters
don’t just ask about Pr 
esidential approval, either. Polls areconducted on every issue of real importance and most of the issues of contrived importance.Many of these polls are repeated to look for changes in opinions over time, between locations,and for different d
emographics. And that’s just political polls. There has been an even faster 
increase in polling for marketing, product development, and other business applications.So to be an educated consumer of poll information, the first thing you have to recognize is whichpolls should be taken seriously. Forget internet polls. Forget polls conducted in the street bysomeone carrying a microphone. Forget polls conducted by politicians or special-interest groups.Forget polls not conducted by a trained pollster with a reputation to protect.For the polls that remain, consider these four factors:Difference between the choicesMargin of errorSampling errorMeasurement errorHere
’s what
to look for.
Poll cat? I thought youwanted me to be a
pole 
cat.
 
Difference between Choices
The percent difference between the choices on a survey is often the only thing people look at,with good reason. It is often the only thing that gets reported. Reputable pollsters will alwaysreport their sample size, their methods, and even their poll questions, but that doesn
t mean allthe news agencies, bloggers, and other people who cite the information will do the same. But thepercent difference between the choices means nothing without also knowing the margin-of-error.Remember this. For any poll question involving two choices, such as
Option A
versus
Option B
,the largest margin of error will be near a 50%
 – 
50% split. Unfortunately, that
s where thedifference is most interesting, so you really need to know something about the actual margin of error.
Margin-of-Error
You might have seen surveys report that the percent difference between the choices for aquestion has a margin-of-error of plus-or-minus some number. In fact, the margin-of-errordescribes a confidence interval.If survey respondents selected
Option A
60% of the time with amargin-of-error of 4%, the actual percentage in the sampled population would be 60% ± 4%,meaning between 56% and 64%, with some level of confidence, usually 95%.For a simple random sample from a surveyed population, the margin-of-error is equal to thesquare root of a Distribution Factor times a Choice Factor divided by a Sample Size Factor timesa Population Correction.
Distribution Factor
is the square of the two-sided t-value based on the number of surveyrespondents and the desired confidence level. The greater the confidence the larger the t-value and the wider the margin-of-error.
Choice Factor
is the percentage for
Option A
times the percentage for
Option B
. That
swhy the largest margin of error will always be near a 50%
 – 
50% split (e.g., 50% times50% will always be greater than any other percentage split, like 90% times 10%).
Sample Size Factor
is the number of people surveyed. The more people you survey, thesmaller the margin of error.
Population Correction
is an adjustment made to account for how much of a populationis being sampled. If you sample a large percentage of the population, the margin-of-errorwill be smaller. The population correction ranges from 1 to about 2. It is calculated by thereciprocal of one plus the quantity the number of people surveyed (n) minus one dividedby the number of people in the population (N), or in mathematical notation, 1/(1+(n-1/N)).So the entire equation for the margin-of-error is:Margin of Error in aSurveyQuestion
√ 
 
(Distribution Factor * ChoiceFactor) / (Sample Size Factor* Population Correction)
 
Or in mathematical notation:Margin of Error in aSurveyQuestion
 
√ 
 
(t
(n,1-
α
 /2)2
* (
 p
*(1-
 p
)))n * (1/(1 + ((n-1)/N)))
 
This formula can be simplified by making a few assumptions.1.
 
If the population size (N) is large compared to the sample size (n), you can ignore thePopulation Correction. What
’s large
, you ask? A good rule of thumb is to use thecorrection if the sample size is more than 5% of the population size.If you
’re conducting
a census, a survey of all individuals in a population, you can
’t
make this assumption.2.
 
Unless you expect a different result, you can assume the percentages for respondentchoices will be about 50%
 – 
50%. This will provide the maximum estimate for the margin-of-error, ignoring other factors.3.
 
Ignore the sample size in the Distribution Factor and use a z-score instead of a t-score.For a two-sided margin-of-error having 95% confidence, the z-score would be 1.96.4.
 
The Distribution Factor (1.96
2
) times the Choice Factor (50%
2
) equals 0.96These assumptions reduce the equation for the margin-of-error to 1/ 
 
n. What could be simpler?Here
s a chart to illustrate the relationship between the number of responses and the margin-of-error. The margin-of-error gets smaller with an increase in the number of respondents, but the

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