Font sizes, randomly ordered names, and an uncertain Iowa poll

Ahead of the Iowa caucuses yesterday, the Des Moines Register had to cancel a final poll just ahead of the voting due to problems with administering the survey:

Sources told several news outlets that they figured out the whole problem was due to an issue with font size. Specifically, one operator working at the call center used for the poll enlarged the font size on their computer screen of the script that included candidates’ names and it appears Buttigieg’s name was cut out from the list of options. After every call the list of candidates’ names is reordered randomly so it isn’t clear whether other candidates may have been affected as well but the organizers were not able to figure out whether it was an isolated incident. “We are unable to know how many times this might have happened, because we don’t know how long that monitor was in that setting,” a source told Politico. “Because we do not know for certain—and may not ever be able to know for certain—we don’t have confidence to release the poll.”…

In their official statements announcing the decision to nix the poll, the organizers did not mention the font issue, focusing instead on the need to maintain the integrity of the survey. “Today, a respondent raised an issue with the way the survey was administered, which could have compromised the results of the poll. It appears a candidate’s name was omitted in at least one interview in which the respondent was asked to name their preferred candidate,” Register executive editor Carol Hunter said in a statement. “While this appears to be isolated to one surveyor, we cannot confirm that with certainty. Therefore, the partners made the difficult decision to not to move forward with releasing the Iowa Poll.” CNN also issued a statement saying that the decision was made as part of their “aim to uphold the highest standards of survey research.”

This provides some insight into how these polls are conducted. The process can include call centers, randomly ordered names, and a system in place so that the administrators of the poll can feel confident in the results (even as there is always a margin of error). If there is a problem in the system, the opinions of those polled may not match what the data says. Will the future processes not allow individual callers to change the font size?

More broadly, a move like this could provide more transparency and ultimately trust regarding political polling. The industry faces a number of challenges. Would revealing this particular issue cause people to wonder how often this happens or reassure them that pollsters are concerned about good data?

At the same time, it appears that the unreported numbers still had an influence:

Indeed, the numbers widely circulating aren’t that different from last month’s edition of the same poll, or some other recent polls. But to other people, both journalists and operatives, milling around the lobby of the Des Moines Marriott Sunday night, the impact had been obvious.

Here are what some reporters told me about how the poll affected their work:

• One reporter for a major newspaper told me they inserted a few paragraphs into a story to anticipate results predicted by the poll.

• A reporter for another major national outlet said they covered an Elizabeth Warren event in part because she looked strong in the secret poll.

• Another outlet had been trying to figure out whether Amy Klobuchar was surging; the poll, which looked similar to other recent polling, steered coverage away from that conclusion.

• “You can’t help it affecting how you’re thinking,” said another reporter.

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