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Why you need to look at more than the numbers when it comes to political polls

Despite 2016's misfire, experts say public opinion polls provide an accurate snapshot of a political race

ATLANTA — ATLANTA – Public opinion polls have been the subject of debate, prompting political experts to point out the need to look beyond the numbers.

For decades, polls have provided a peek behind the curtains of a hotly contested political race. Some people, like 11Alive viewer Terry Hearn, are suspicious.

“I believe people are going to say what they feel,” says Hearn. “But I don’t believe in the interpretation or the people reporting it.”

In 2016, many polls showed Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton leading the race for President. It was Republican Donald Trump who triumphed. Despite that, the outlets that conduct public opinion polls say they are still extremely accurate.

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Ken Alper with SurveyUSA, the company that provides polling for 11Alive, says t’s important to look at when pollsters conduct their survey.

“Public opinion polls are snapshots in time,” says Alper. “They tell you what would happen if the election were held today.”

Different pollsters have different methods that can vary from race to race. It’s good to know the questions and who is asking.

Joseph Watson, Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications, points out that the candidates themselves will pay for polls with questions framed to get certain results.

“You can say ‘I’ve got 80%’ because you framed the question in a way that’s favorable to you,” says Watson.

It’s important to know how the is the poll conducted. There are pollsters that still depend on landline telephones.

“If you’re using a recorded voice only poll, you’re going to skew more toward how the older people in that geography feel,” says Alper.

Polls will often lean on people who are likely to vote in a particular election. That can be hard to determine.

“If you have an election where a lot of people who were not prior voters did vote, you’re undercounting them,” says Watson.

Our experts say it’s best to look at more than one poll and remember the only one that counts is the actual ballot tally on election day.

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