[Outlook]Checking public opinion

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[Outlook]Checking public opinion

The presidential election campaign this year can be said to be one of polls, by polls and for polls. Polls serve as a decisive factor not only in every political party’s nomination process but also in producing a single candidate out of many and deciding which candidates will appear in TV debates.
Public opinion research institutes are even being called the fourth power, and they will be allowed to wield influence until six days before election day because the election law has been revised.
From a public opinion research institute’s perspective, it is not bad that its influence is growing.
But it is quite burdensome that its power has grown so much that it is being called a power institute. The duty of a public opinion research institute is to uncover public opinions and deliver them so that political parties can make better judgments on certain issues.
But the power of polls has gotten so strong that now they can decide a party’s presidential candidate. If a corporation appoints its CEO based on polls rather than in a general meeting of shareholders, the company can no longer be called a corporation. Korea’s political parties have abdicated their identities and put extreme power in the hands of public opinion research centers.
However, as polls have become an important factor, voters have become more knowledgeable as well. Unlike in the past, if they have questions or opinions about certain poll results, they write them on the Internet, send e-mails or make phone calls to express their opinions.
Meanwhile, an increasing number of voters also falsely condemn poll results based on misinformation or a lack of knowledge. For instance, they say that in the United States, if the rate of response is lower than 30 percent, a poll is not publicized. But in Korea, the rate of response is usually around 20 percent so polls cannot be trusted. Some say that a poll through landline phones is inaccurate when so many people have mobile phones. This criticism is based on some politicians’ or scholars’ opinions, which are a minority and not proved.
According to American scholars’ studies released by the American Association for Public Opinion Research, a response rate has little to do with a survey’s quality. Media outlets in the United States do not clarify response rates when reporting polls, in most cases. In Korea, from this year the National Election Commission started checking whether response rates are shown, which implies that response rates are important to the quality of polls.
Those who criticize low response rates also say without fail that surveys conducted using recorded questions over the phone have lower response rates so they are less trustworthy.
But recently, Realmeter conducted surveys both with telephone interviews and with recorded questions simultaneously, and the results are almost the same. In several recent polls to predict election results, the surveys done with the two methods showed accurate results. So critics’ skepticism about polls done with recorded questions is hard to accept.
Another criticism is that only 57 percent of wired telephone numbers are listed in phone books and many people are not home during the time surveys are usually conducted. So critics maintain that surveys through mobile phones must be introduced.
It is true that there are limitations to surveys through landline phones, but it will be hard, for now, to replace them with surveys through mobile phones because there is no phone directory for mobile phones so we can’t even talk about what percentage of mobile phone users have listed numbers.
If surveys are conducted through mobile phones, opinion poll research centers will have no choice but to use mobile phone numbers that they acquire when they should make calls randomly from an unlimited pool. If surveys are done in this way, reliability and effectiveness will be far worse than surveys through landline phones.
The question about response rates and the argument to begin doing surveys on mobile phones were raised by the camps of presidential candidates with low support rates. It is understandable that they make such arguments, but their logic is not strong enough to turn the situation to their favor.
A weird political culture has dragged opinion poll research centers, which should be in the audience’ seats, into the field and gave them the title of the fourth power. Research centers’ power has grown so big that they also are being subjected to a variety of criticisms. Fortunately, in the midst of such criticism from voters, public opinion research institutes are producing more accurate results. Voters are also gaining knowledge and getting a better understanding of polls. In the next presidential election campaign, politicians will hopefully become more competent so they can take back power from the public opinion research institutes.

*The writer is the CEO of the opinion research institute Realmeter.

by Lee Taek-soo
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