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UK Analyst: Societal Shifts Putting Pollsters In Peril

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Associated Press
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A University of Kentucky political analyst says, now more than ever, voters should exercise caution in reading public polls.

Kentucky’s last gubernatorial election, the 2014 Senate race, the recent Democratic presidential primary in Michigan – what do they all have in common? They’re contests where a number of respected pollsters got it wrong, sometimes by a sizable margin. When it comes to laying blame, UK’s Dr. Stephen Voss points to a cocktail of factors, from changes in demographics and voting patterns to new technologies throwing a wrench into old, tried and true methods of gathering data.

And that’s sent many opinion trackers into a tailspin.

"The pollsters are scrambling," Voss says. "They're not on top of it and the industry is in some danger because of changes that have taken place in society that makes polling harder than it used to be."

The worry is that iffy survey results could wind up affecting voting habits and leaving election winners with a misleading picture of their mandates at the ballot box. And though Voss warns pollsters haven’t gotten a handle on the problem yet, voters and candidates can't afford to toss the baby out with the bath water.

"You might say, so why don't we just stop doing this? The problem is that it's the best we have for political information," Voss acknowledges. "There's really no substitute for scientific polling, even though it's getting weaker as an information source."

Voss is leading a public forum entitled “Public Polling in Transition”  from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Wednesday at the William T. Young Library on campus, featuring remarks from Democratic strategist Celinda Lake and Robert Blizzard, a partner with leading Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies. The event is sponsored by the UK Martin School of Public Policy and Administration and the school's Department of Political Science.