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Does the Polling of a Few Hundred Americans Accurately Represent the Views of Millions?Aired October 9, 2000 - 1:20 p.m. ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Polls are as much a part of political campaigns these days as bumper stickers and stump speeches. But if you've never quite understood how a few hundred people could reflect the views of a few million, you're probably in the majority.
For you, CNN's Garrick Utley runs the numbers.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you approve or disapprove of the way Bill Clinton is handling his job as president?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I would like to get your overall opinion of some people in the news.
GARRICK UTLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In political polls, we are all just a number: a telephone number in the computers of the counters of public opinion, including the Gallup Organization, which conducts the presidential campaign polls for CNN and "USA Today."
FRANK NEWPORT, EDITOR IN CHIEF, GALLUP POLL: The key to telephone sampling is that every single residential phone number in America is on your list, so that when you randomly select, you everybody have an equal probability of falling into the sample.
UTLEY: But in a nation of millions of opinionated people, you might wonder: Why hasn't anyone ever asked me?
(on camera): The answer, of course, is that the pollsters say they can find out what everyone thinks by asking just a few of us. The trick is reducing that famous margin of error, a calculation only a statistician could love. For example, ask the first 10 people you meet on a street corner here in New York City whom they would vote for today.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Al Gore, of course. Who else?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bush.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Undecided.
UTLEY: The result of this poll: four for Gore, three for Bush, three undecided. But since we asked only 10 people, the margin of error was plus or minus at least 30 percent -- not much accuracy there.
(voice-over): If you ask 100 people across the nation at random, the margin of error drops to 10 percent. Ask 1,000, a standard size of polls today, and the error is reduced to 3 percent. There is safety in numbers.
NEWPORT: But after about 1,200 people, you don't really gain that much in terms of reduction of margin of error, even if you double or triple the sample.
UTLEY: But how do you find the right 1,000 people to learn who is leading in the presidential race? By asking only those who say they are likely to vote.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And are you now registered to vote in your precinct or election?
UTLEY: And how do you make sure the questions don't influence the answers? By keeping them free of political bias.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hillary Rodham Clinton: favorable or unfavorable? Al Gore?
UTLEY: The problem for pollsters is that people are getting tired of answering questions.
JOHN ZOGBY, PRESIDENT & CEO, ZOGBY INTERNATIONAL: When I started in this business in 1984, the typical response rate for a poll -- a political poll -- or any other kind of poll was about 65 percent. And the long-distance phone call was still a cultural event in the home. Now, it's more than likely to be a telemarketer or a nuisance of some sort. We are now averaging about 33, 34 percent.
UTLEY: There are at least 12 presidential polls being published during this campaign. Do we need them? Without polls, the candidates would be free to make their own claims of who is leading in the race. And, yes, politics is about popularity. Polls are the ever-changing scorecard for the biggest game in the country.
ZOGBY: People want to feel connected with each other. We work in our cubicles. We drive home in our cubicles. We come home to the privacy of our homes. More and more of us want to know just where do we fit in with society at large.
UTLEY: And so we follow the polls and report on them, and will until Election Day, when the margin of error is reduced to zero.
Garrick Utley, CNN, New York.
ALLEN: All right, thank you.
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