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An opportunity denied
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The phone rang the other night during dinner. We often have the news on, although that's not good for digestion. Our satellite service displays on the TV screen the entity and phone number that's calling.

We saw "Gallup Poll," and we each bolted for the phone, almost tripping the other. Finally, someone thought we were important enough for a phone call from the world's oldest polling company. Perhaps our opinions would start a positive shift in the societal fabric of this country, even the world. At last, we'd be able to tell a living, breathing human being what we were thinking, instead of sitting around talking back to the TV.

I was praying for a chance to voice support for a ban on selling assault weapons and thousands of rounds of ammo to deranged men. I wanted to rail against wrong-way drivers, beer bellies, exposed bra straps and men's boxers, corporations like Charter that won't answer phones at corporate headquarters in St. Louis, flimsy plastic shopping bags, and politicians of both stripes who won't answer a yes-or-no question without a discourse on the origins of the universe. I wanted to express support for booting Todd Akin from the U.S. House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee and sending him back to Mars from whence he came.

Well, forget that. The person on the phone line wanted to speak to whomever had recently visited a branch of our local bank on Peachtree Road in Atlanta, and I was the culprit. Gallup only wanted to know if the service was prompt, friendly and efficient. That's all. Disappointed is not the word. Recently, a friend had a similar experience. Gallup was calling, and she raced for the phone with hopes like mine. Alas, the call clicked off as soon as she lifted the receiver - Charter? - and her hopes were dashed.

You can read online as well as I about the history of polling in this country. Back in 1916, a now defunct publication called The Literary Digest began national surveys of readers that led to the correct predictions of wins by Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. By 1936, the sampling of readers tilted toward those more affluent and Republican-leaning, so the day before the election, its poll gave the victory to a man named Alf Landon over a Roosevelt re-election. A man named George Gallup took a smaller but more scientifically balanced survey of the population and successfully predicted Roosevelt's landslide win.
The Digest soon died, but Gallup went on to found a worldwide polling institution.

The most common polling techniques are mailed questionnaires; phone interviews using randomly selected landline numbers; and personal interviews. All have their shortcomings. Who knows if the person to whom a questionnaire is mailed is the one who fills it out? What about responses from all those who don't bother to participate? What if it's about a subject the target isn't interested in? A phone interview depends on someone answering the phone - and many of us don't these days because of caller ID. It's illegal in the U.S. to poll cell phone numbers, so that leaves a lot of potential respondents with critical opinions but no land lines unreported and uncounted. Then there's the personal interview in which respondents' answers can be skewed by the race, sex or ethnicity of the interviewer and the leading order in which questions are asked. In all three major types of polling, the construction of the questions can influence the outcome, and polls, as we know, are often designed to produce a desire outcome for the benefit of whoever is paying for it.

When polls are reported, especially during election years, something called the margin of error isn't always included, but many times, its effect can be significant in a close race, like the one we're watching now. The margin of error is based on the size of the sample. A large sample produces a smaller margin of error, and vice versa. Say the candidates are within two points of each other, but there's a margin of error of 4 percent. That means the leader could be in second place or it could be an actual tie. In a close race, such differences can make a substantial difference on Election Day.

There was, however, no margin of error when Georgia House Speaker David Ralston read the results of the Democrat and Republican primary poll of voters on the issue of a total ban on lobbyist gifts to legislators. Three-fourths of voters were unequivocal in their support for a ban, so Ralston has about-faced himself and vows to see one passed - or at least studied - in the coming legislative session.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.