Online polls are not reliable; they are easily manipulated and you cannot determine the validity of the sample. We know that, but we like to run them because they’re fun and you do get some insights into your readers.
I do think you are more likely to get somewhat accurate information when you ask noncontroversial questions, such as, “What neighborhood do you live in?”
But when it comes to political races or controversial social and political issues, online political polls are, by nature, prone to “bombing.” By bombing, I mean that supporters of candidates and causes are likely to steer their people toward the poll.
We ran two reader polls on the DC mayoral race this year and we didn’t seem to see too much bombing by supporters of either Adrian Fenty or Vincent Gray. It will be interesting to see how local precincts end up voting on September 14 compared to what our readers told us. (We’re not counting on being particularly accurate.)
On Friday, August 20, we ran a reader poll on the landing page, Ward 1 Democrats: Who’s your choice for Council?, with an accompanying article. The poll choices were Jim Graham, Jeff Smith, Bryan Weaver, “Undecided even though I know the candidates,” and “Undecided: Who are these guys?”
What ended up being most interesting about our reader poll on the Ward 1 Council race wasn’t the poll results–it was the effective use of social media (Facebook and Twitter) by two scrappy campaigns fighting to get all the attention and publicity they can muster against a three-term incumbent. Yes, this type of thing is common. But this was an interesting example of how it’s done.
Through Tuesday the 23rd a total of 93 readers had voted. It was obvious that the Weaver campaign had found the poll: he got 77 of those first 93 votes. Incumbent Graham–who is heavily favored to win on September 14–had 9 votes and Smith had 2 votes. (The D.C. Wire at The Washington Post reported that Graham campaign did a July poll showing him getting 68%.)
Then on Wednesday the 25th, much larger numbers of Weaver supporters found the online poll and began voting for their guy. By Thursday the 26th Smith supporters were in the game and the number of people voting for these two candidates soared. Smith took the lead for a day but then Weaver got it back.
By the time we closed the poll Monday night, 861 readers (many of them undoubtedly not regular Borderstan readers) had voted in the Ward 1 Council poll. The results were Weaver 52%, Smith 43%, Graham 4%, and Undecided 1%.
What happened? First, local blogger Dave Stroup picked up the poll on Twitter and began commenting about it (Stroup writes about DC politics for We Love DC and Greater Greater Washington). Then, supporters of both Weaver and Smith began tweeting about the poll, posting on Facebook (and undoubtedly sending emails). My question at the time on Twitter and Facebook was, “Where are the Graham supporters?” For whatever reason, the Graham campaign decided not to drive local supporters to our reader poll. Of course, when you are the heavy favorite, you don’t feel the need to participate in online reader polls.
So, on September 14 we will be watching the results of the Democratic Primary in Ward 1 for the Council seat… to see how Graham, Smith and Weaver do. And we will keep running reader polls at Borderstan because they are often interesting and you snapshots of your readers–with varying degrees of accuracy.