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Sunday, July 06, 2008

SOUND OFF: POLL POSITION

Black candidates for state and national office in the United States regularly poll higher than their actual vote totals. Frequently referred to as "The Bradley Effect" or "The Wilder Effect" -- named after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder to reflect their experiences -- this phenomenon presumably reflects respondents' reluctance to express socially unacceptable attitudes, such as racism, when talking to pollsters.

With Sen. Barack Obama (D.-Ill) running for president, this phenomenon has received elevated scrutiny. Here's this week's Sound Off question:

Is it a breach of ethics to misrepresent yourself to a pollster?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

You can also respond to the poll about this question that will appear on the right-hand side of the blog until polling is closed.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a no-brainer.

It is ALWAYS unethical to misrepresent oneself to ANYBODY. One may
(courageously) remain silent or otherwise evasively dissemble without
lying. Misrepresentation just proves the scum-sucking spinelessness of
such a person (Bill Clinton).

Majority vote to the contrary cannot erase that fact.

H. Watkins Ellerson
Hadensville, VA

Anonymous said...

Polls, depending upon the questions asked and the way they're phrased, can sway the results. Consider the following poll questions asked by the Washington Post a few years ago:

(1) Some people say the 1975 Public Affairs Act should be repealed. Do you agree or disagree?"

(2) Republicans in Congress believe the 1975 Public Affairs Act should be repealed. Do you agree or disagree with this idea?

(3) Democrats in Congress believe the 1975 Public Affairs Act should be repealed. Do you agree or disagree with this idea?"

Guess which way Democrats and Republicans split on those questions? And guess how big the split got when the repeal was phrased as being Bill Clinton's idea?

Almost everyone, it seems, had an opinion they were more than willing to share. Their opinions, oddly enough, falling along party lines.

But there were those few who had no opinion because they had no idea what the 1975 Public Affairs Act was which was not surprising. There is no such thing. It never existed.

The Washington Post, a very excellent newspaper, had fun with that one.

Exit polls are even more interesting. According to them, John Kerry is now the president of the US.

Another problem with polls is how do you determine what the entire country is thinking by polling between 1,000 and 2,000 people by phone? Who selects who is polled almost determines the outcome before the first question is asked.

As of now, for example, people with cell phones are not being polled. Yet young people with cell phones are more likely to support Bush than those with just land line phones. And what about Spanish, Vietnamese and other foreign language speaking people who may or not be active voters? And then there are those voters with unlisted phone numbers. A significant portion of the population is being excluded.

And the polling area area also plays a large part. In 2005, for example, CBS conducted a poll of 1,018 people and announced that Bush's approval rating was at an all time low. But out of those 1,018, 25 percent were Republicans, 40 percent were Democrats, 33 percent were Independents and who knows what the other 2 percent were.

Is that representative of the population as a whole? And in subsequent polls did CBS ask the same 1,018 people, or did they ask another group who may have had a different opinion in the first place? If it's a different group, how can you tell if Bush's rating has gone up or down?

And current polls focusing on the issue of "race" will tell us nothing. People polled will often tell you what they think is politically correct and what you want to hear.

Ask a redneck from Manhattan (yes, they have them there - they just wear nicer clothes than the rest of us bubbas and drink more expensive and trendy booze) if they wouldn't vote for Obama simply because he's black and the pollster will be reassured that race would in no way be a factor in their decision.

Wrong! There are lots and lots of bubbas in Manhattan who wouldn't vote for a black man no matter what. I think I've heard more racial slurs in New York City than in any other large city I've visited. But who wants to be the next Don Imus?

I realize this may be hard to believe, but people being polled often tell the pollster what they think he or she wants to hear. They lie!

So I don't put much faith in polls. If they were that accurate, Gore or Kerry would be president now.

Burl Estes
Mission Viejo, CA

Anonymous said...

Reluctance to reveal racial prejudice in an opinion poll is just an extension of political correctness foisted upon us by the liberal left. If we felt truly free to express our opinions, people who use the "n" word in private but not in public would avail themselves of their first amendment rights. Until then, pollsters must get used to predicting one thing and seeing a different result! It's not unethical-- it's only human nature to protect oneself.


Gary Denys
Chatham Ontario

(Windsor Star)

james said...

I take my cue from the late, great Mike Royko, of the Chicago Tribune. During the 1976 presidential election, the first one I voted in, the TV networks were voicing their projections before the West Coast polls closed. The news outlets revealed a breathtaking lack of ethics.

Royko said, "Lie to exit pollsters, and then watch their projections go crazy." I say, Amen. I am sick of politicians that base their decisions on polls, which can be slanted depending on who's asking the questions. I am looking for the statesman who can say, "Here I stand, I can do no other."