And it was by no less than the Quinnipiac organization! Here's what it feels like to be influential. And here are 7 important metafacts of polling. Take a gander, and see if you still have any faith in polls.
So last night the Mrs. and I were watching the tube and dozing when the phone (the land line) rang. We don't use that phone much, and are skeptical of any calls that come on it, but we have teenage sons and old parents, so we keep an eye on what the caller ID says, just in case of an emergency like an arrest, whether cardiac or constabulary. Usually, it's just a telemarketer. We're not on the do-not-call list (Important polling metafact number 1: If you're on the do-not-call list, you don't even get polled. (Someone correct me if this is wrong)).
No sooner does the wife say, "it's a 203 number from Quinnipiac University" than I leap to pick it up like I hit the lotto. The lady tells me that my phone number was randomly generated, and she would like to ask a random person in my household a few questions, so who in my household has the next birthday? "That's me!", I say, even though it's actually my wife. But I can't let my wife handle this critical moment; after all, the future of the country's at stake, and we need my steady hand on the rudder (Important polling metafact number 2: there are people like me out there who try to skew the polls). I smile condescendingly at my wife; she rolls her eyes, not sharing my view of the significance of the moment. She, a strong Obama supporter, would not have bothered to pick up the phone (Important polling metafact number 3: Skeptics don't answer their land lines).
So she starts in with the questions, first about whether I'm gonna vote in November and whether I've voted in the past. Then she asks how much attention I pay to the election and the news. There are five choices ranging from "A lot" to "none at all". "A lot", I say. (Important polling metafact number 4: Pollsters gather number about how attentive respondents think they are, but they don't tell us about it, I don't think. Everyone knows that as summer cools into fall, voters will start to pay more attention. At least, voters think that they're paying attention come October. Don't we want to know what more attentive voters will do, since voters will be more attentive in November? I've never seen numbers on attentiveness.)
Then she asks whom I intend to vote for and whether I might change my mind. She asks if I have a favorable view of Obama, McCain, Bush. (Important polling metafact number 5: Her questions tend to tie McCain to Bush, which seems to assume a fact not yet established in the mind of the electorate, or at least one that the McCain camp try to change.) She throws in a few questions about senators Lautenberg and Menendez, and then a few Governor Corzine question. She asks about Dick Zimmer, Lautenberg's senate race opponent. I basically lie and say "good" if the question relates to a Democrat, and "bad" if it relates to a Republican. The point is that I'm strategizing my answers. (See, important polling metafact number 2 about me gaming the system. In fact, I'm not sure if I like Corzine, Menendez and Lautenberg, but I'm definitely going to vote for them, and hope that they win.)
Next, she asks me some questions about Lautenberg's age (at 84, he's a lot older than McCain) but I say that it doesn't matter, even though he's running for a 6 year term. Yes, she mentions that it's a 6 year term in connection with her age question. I'm not a huge Lautenberg fan, but I answer like I am.
Then she asks McCain age questions. I admit I feel trapped. I'd like to say that McCain's too old because I have this idea that polling data saying that McCain's too old will help Obama, but I feel locked in by my Lautenberg answer. When you're on the phone with an intelligent sounding person (and the polling lady DID seem intelligent), you want to be consistent. And my mind's not quick enough to weigh the difference between duties in the senate and duties of the oval office. I say that McCain's age doesn't matter. (Important polling metafact number 6: If you see any age related polling data from Quinnipiac's New Jersey polls, keep in mind that Quinnipiac asks about Lautenberg's age before they ask about McCain's.)
Then I get the Iraq question. It comes with two choices that are hard to discern from the question's wording, and I had to ask her to repeat it. The choices are either "withdraw" -- yes, I think they used the word "withdraw" -- within 18 months no matter what, or withdraw only when things are more stable. The question was worded so that the McCain answer sounded much more reasonable than the Obama one (Important polling metafact number 7: The Quinnipiac Iraq question is going to get a lot of pro-McCain's-Iraq-position answers from a lot of pro-Obama's-Iraq-position supporters because of the wording of the question.) I told the lady that the question was worded badly, and gave the Obama answer. The lady agreed that that the question was worded badly.
Finally, she asks about my party affiliation. I think that my answers will help Obama and the democrats more if I say that I'm an unaffiliated independent, and that I'm moderate, not liberal, so that's what I tell her. In hindsight, I wish I had said that I was a conservative registered republican who hadn't gone to college. She also asked about my religion. I tell her I'm Jewish, because I can't stand the theme floating around on the net an in the media that McCain does well with the Jewish vote in states like Florida and New Jersey.
The poll took 15 minutes, and I reckon that it afforded me more influence over the outcome of the election than either my vote will or even a large campaign contribution would.
The whole process demonstrated to me, an avid fan of polling data, how potentially wrong polls can be. Who picks up their landline when the caller ID gives a strange number from an unknown source? I only picked up because I know what "Quinnipiac" means. What if less of a political junkie than I am gets a call that comes up "Research 2000" on the caller ID? Who would pick that up? My parents are in their late 80's don't even have caller ID. I suspect that these polls are heavily skewed toward older voters. Of course, my old, Jewish, German born, former zionist parents are strong Obama supporters, so go figure.