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Americans Fascinated by Political Polls

Every four years, political polls have an impact on the shape of presidential election campaigns. Candidates and consumers are fascinated by them. Seeking a more accurate result, polling organizations tend to focus on likely voters rather than the larger pool of registered voters. VOA's Carolyn Presutti takes a look at the latest polling methods and how they affect the presidential election.

America is built on diversity. Some people are white, others are not. Some people live in the city. Others, in the country. Political polling organizations strive to reflect that diversity in their results.

But the difference in their findings can lie in how companies separate likely voters from those unlikely to vote.

Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute says most Americans insist they will vote, "We give them [the pollsters] the civically correct response, 'Of course I'm going to turn out to vote on Election Day', then perhaps around 60 percent of us actually show up at the polls," Bowman said.

Polling companies give more weight to certain responders. For example, African Americans and younger voters are expected to turn out in record numbers to vote for Democratic nominee, Barack Obama.

But if the pollsters don't gather enough of that demographic, they will add "weight" to the responses they do get. Bowman says that can be dangerous, "Some pollsters may think that youngsters are unreliable voters," she said.

"I know some of my friends won't vote and others will vote the way their parents tell them," one voter said.

Political polling took off in the 1930s. Back then, pollsters went mainly door-to-door.

But the weekly magazine Literary Digest took a telephone poll and predicted Republican Alf Landon would overwhelmingly beat Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Gallup organization took the lead in telephone polling. Gallup's Frank Newport says his company still uses phone surveys, "Gallup today primarily uses the telephone for our pre-election polls. Polls where we want to represent all Americans."

But remember the young female voter? She uses a cellphone.

Polling companies that use automatic calling cannot reach cellphones. Nearly 12 percent of Americans don't even own a land line.

"Another problem is that people aren't answering their phones," Stephen Hess, with the Brookings Institution said. "...they are turning down the chance to appear in a poll, so pollsters have to poll that many more people."

"I never respond to people on the phone, not to telephone surveys," another voter said.

Polls can change the direction of a campaign. In early October, John McCain's internal polling showed him trailing in [the midwestern state of] Michigan. So, the Republican nominee pulled out of Michigan, to campaign in a more promising state.

"Polling is like a thermometer which takes the temperature of a race all the way up to Election Day itself and is a central part of how campaigns decide what they are doing," Frank Newport said.

Zogby International is one of the few companies pioneering in Internet polling. They also specialize in Middle Eastern countries where cultural differences can pose problems.

"You catch people having reservations and being nervous about certain questions that touch on their leaders," Michelle van Gilder with Zogby International said."Benign questions by our standards."

Van Gilder says the abundance of U.S. presidential polls demonstrates the freedom Americans have to express their opinions. But whether the current polls favoring Obama are accurate will only be resolved on election night.