The Great Poll Scam, Part X: Weasel Words

I’ve been raising kids for a long time.  Before that, I grew up around a bunch of them.  Indeed, I was one myself, once.

And I know now as I knew then the same thing that every single person who watches Cops knows, instinctively; if you think someone did something, and their response is “you can’t prove it”, it’s the same as an admission of guilt.

Oh, it doesn’t stand up in court – and it’s probably a good thing.

And in the rarified world of academics – and its poor, profoundly handicapped accidental offspring, political public opinion polling – I’m going to suggest it works the same way.

If there is a poll that is, year in and year out, just as ludicrous as the Humphrey and Strib polls, it’s the Saint Cloud State University poll.  I haven’t heretofore included it in my “Great Poll Scam” series, because it’s sort of out of sight and out of mind.

But in David Brauer’s interview with Emmer campaign manager Cullen Sheehan, the director of the SCSU poll – which is done in conjunction with the MinnPost – a fellow named Stephen Frank, tips us off; he concludes…:

Frank says. “Campaign managers like to find excuses rather than looking at their candidate or performance. Do you think if we stopped [publishing results] others would — or the candidates would and the latter won’t go public or only partially public?”

True, to a point.

But he began the statement by saying:

“Please show me one credible study that shows people change their mind on the basis of a poll,”

On the one hand:  “You can’t proooooooooove we did it!”

On the other hand – allow me to introduce you to Dr. Albert Mehrabian, who published a study entitled “Effects of Poll Reports on Voter Preferences”

From the abstract summary, with emphasis added:

Results of two experimental studies described in this article constituted clear experimental demonstration of how polls influence votes. Findings showed that voters tended to vote for those who they were told were leading in the polls; furthermore, that these poll-driven effects on votes were substantial.

How substantial?  I don’t know.  As I write this, it’s 5AM, and I have no way of getting to the University of Minnesota library to find a copy of Journal of Applied Social Psychology (Volume 28).  But I will.

But Mehrabian noted a decided “bandwagon effect” in voter responses to poll results.

Effects of polls on votes tended to be operative throughout a wide spectrum of initial (i.e., pre-poll) voter preferences ranging from undecided to moderately strong. There was a limit on poll effects, however, as noted in Study Two: Polls failed to influence votes when voter preferences were very strong to begin with.


I’d have voted for Tom Emmer even if he did finish 12 points back, as the Humphrey Institute suggested.  Or ten points out of the game, as Frank’s survey (which I ridiculed in this space), or thirty points back.  But then, nobody really doubted that.

But people who don’t live and breathe politics?  That’s another story – says Dr. Mehrabian.

Additional findings of considerable interest showed that effects of polls were stronger for women than for men and also were stronger for more arousable (i.e., more emotional) and more submissive (or less dominant) persons.

Which would be important, in a year when the DFL was worried about women flaking away from Dayton, and moderates being drawn (successfully!) to the Tea Party.

Wouldn’t it?

Especially noteworthy is my discussion of similarities and differences between the study methods and real- life political campaigns beginning with the middle paragraph on page 2128 (“Overall, results …).

I’ll dredge up a copy of Mehrabian’s study (unless any of you academics out there can shoot me a pointer…).

Mehrabian was cited in this study of the subject – “Social information and bandwagon behaviour in voting: an economic experiment“, by Ivo Bischoff and Henrik Egbert, a pair of German economists; the paper isn’t about the bandwagon effect – but it touches on it pretty heavily (all emphases are added by me):

The political science literature contains a number of empirical studies that test for bandwagon behaviour in voting. A first group of studies analyses data from large-scale opinion polls conducted in times of upcoming elections or on election days. The evidence from these studies is mixed (see the literature reviews in Marsh, 1984; McAllister and Studlar, 1991; Nadeau et al., 1997). One essential shortcoming of these studies is that it is very difficult to disentangle the complex interrelations between voting intentions, poll results and other pieces of information that drive both of the former simultaneously (Marsh, 1984; Morwitz and Pluzinski, 1996; Joslyn, 1997). Avoiding these difficulties, a second group of studies are based on experiments. Mehrabian (1998) presents two studies on bandwagon behaviour in voting. In his first study, he elicits the intended voting behaviour among Republicans in their primaries for the presidential election in 1996. He finds that the tendency to prefer Bob Dole over Steve Forbes depends on the polls presented to the voters. Voters are more likely to vote for Dole when he leads in the opinion poll compared to the situation with Forbes leading. The second study involves students from the University of California, Los Angeles. These are asked to express their approval to proposals for different modes of testing their performance: a midterm exam or an extra-credit paper. Mehrabian (1998) uses bogus polls in his studies. Results show that bogus polls do not influence the answers when subjects have clear and strong preferences. However, bogus polls have an impact when preference relations are weak. In this case, bandwagon behaviour in voting is observed. Next to Mehrabian (1998), there are a number of others experimental studies that find evidence for bandwagon behaviour in voting (Laponce 1966; Fleitas 1971; Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1994; Goidel and Shields, 1994; Mehrabian 1998).

It’s not an open-and-shut, according to Bischoff and Egbert – but there is evidence to suggest that the “Bandwagon Effect” exists, and that polling drives it.

Is it possible that the learned Professors Larry Jacobs or Stephen Frank are unaware of this?  Certainly.

Given both polls’ lock-step consistency, especially at under-polling GOP support in close elections, where people with weak initial preferences – people whose “preference relations are weak”, as Bischoff and Egbert put it, which might well be as good a good description for “independents” and “swing voters” as I’ve seen -  it’s worth a look, though.

More from Dr. Mehrabian in the near future.