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More poll police may be needed

Dick Wirthlin, the renowned Republican pollster, once groused that the polling industry was being ruined by “low barriers to entry.” Wirthlin got his start, of course, in the days when privileged pollsters could access mainframe computers at universities. Then the personal computer hit the market, followed by the broad dissemination of SPSS and similar canned software packages to crunch poll data. “Field service” call centers sprang up, too, offering cheap WATS long distance. Suddenly, some guy operating a “polling firm” out of a van down by the river was ostensibly offering the same service as Dr. Dick Wirthlin.

It wasn’t just the hardware and software that made Dick Wirthlin different, however. He had formal academic training, experience and judgment that the van guy didn’t. One unique element of the training of most “academic” pollsters was and is an immersion in the history and ethics of polling. Properly trained opinion researchers are steeped in the tradition that we are acolytes of the public in the sacred practices of mass democracy. It is a sober responsibility. In graduate school, I was required to take a course in the philosophy of science, wherein we pondered our ethical responsibilities.

Since Dr. Wirthlin’s melancholy critique, things have only gotten worse. Essential tools of political polling are more accessible to the untrained than ever. Online services like SurveyMonkey (an apt label) will probably accelerate the slide of the industry. A clear majority of pollsters today has no formal academic training in the trade. New pollsters nowadays are most often plucked from the ranks of young swashbuckling operatives. The polling firm hires them for their aggressive promise and runs them through an in-house apprenticeship. I once made a hire like this. As an alternative to on-the-job training, I sent him to the University of Michigan for a program designed to instruct journalists in the art and science of polling. It was probably better than nothing when it came to inculcating proper values about polling.

There is no inherent justification for pollsters with an operative background to have coarser principles than researchers with academic training. Yet I have observed that it happens that way most of the time. In particular, outbreaks of over-the-top, push-polling-variety questions most always emanate from pollsters with little formal training, except in the school of hard knocks. But, to be fair, it must be acknowledged that one of the few pollsters ever formally censured by a professional organization was an Oxford-trained Ph.D.

The American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) tries to stand in the breach of this chasm between polling principles and political practice. These are the “good guys” (and gals), most of whom labor in academia or serious research organizations. They volunteer their time and effort to hear complaints regarding violation of AAPOR standards. Violations can result in censure, as when AAPOR slapped Frank Luntz 12 years ago for his behavior in relation to research supposedly undergirding the Contract with America. Political pollsters aren’t the only culprits. A public health researcher at Johns Hopkins was cited by AAPOR on Feb. 4.

It’s good that AAPOR is there, because the threat of censure may encourage some good behavior.

But AAPOR’s mandate is limited. Last year I asked AAPOR to censure a newspaper that blatantly misreported results of a poll that I conducted. AAPOR treated the matter seriously, but concluded that its organizational mandate was only to confront researchers, not reporters. That’s a gap — censuring errant poll reporting — that someone like AAPOR needs to fill.

Most pollsters revel in our relatively unregulated enterprise. No training required. No certificate needed. No rules in place. The vacuum of that freedom, if abuses persist, will eventually be filled.

In a pro-regulatory Obama era, it may come sooner than we suspect.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.