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They matter much less than they used to, apparently, according to commentator Jeff Jacoby, who offers some interesting information:  

“Election polling is in near crisis,” broods Cliff Zukin, a past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. “Our old paradigm has broken down, and we haven’t figured out how to replace it.” The reason? In a word, cellphones.

For decades, professional opinion polling has relied on the ability to call landline phone numbers generated at random and be fairly confident of reaching an adult at the other end. But the explosive growth in cellphone use over the past two decades has fatally undermined that confidence. Today, according to federal data, more than 45 percent of American homes only use cellphones; another 15 percent, though owning landlines, get almost all their calls on cellphones. Thus any pollster who relies on landline phones to survey public opinion bypasses close to 60 percent of US households right off the bat.

 As a result, response rates have cratered from 80 percent to 8 percent.

Eight percent? Maybe eight percent of the American public believes that the White House is hiding space aliens.

This skepticism of the value of opinion polls is echoed by a Canadian group, Abacus:

One-third of Canadians no longer have land lines and caller-ID means many others won’t answer unfamiliar calls on their cellphones or land lines. That means it takes longer to do a poll, which drives live survey costs higher and making it less likely media organizations will shell out the $10,000-$20,0000 needed to partner with a major polling firm. “I would imagine in the next couple of years there will not be telephone surveys being done and instead we’re going to be looking for new ways to collect data online,” said Coletto, who has used IVR in the past, but will not do so again. “One of the more recent methodologies would be to randomly pull people off websites.”

Good luck with that.

My sense is that, whatever their partisanship, these people are on to something important: Today, when we hear that “polls show,” we are probably looking at the claims through the funny mirror at the circus.

As Jacoby puts it,

For better or for worse, polling’s heyday is over. Political surveys are ubiquitous, but fewer and fewer of them will be correct. You know that bromide about how the only poll that matters is the one onElection Day? Time to start taking it to heart.

Now more than ever and with so much at stake, we must exercise our own judgement about persons qualified for office.

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...