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Election-Year Poll Survival Guide

Awash in a sea of public opinion polls — national and state, telephone and Internet, independent and partisan — voters must be seeing double by now.

And it's about to get much worse as the presidential campaign heads into the home stretch. Those trying to make sense of the swirl of numbers need a "poll survival guide."

"Even for people who study politics, it gets confusing," said Norm Ornstein, a veteran political analyst for the American Enterprise Institute (search). "There is now such a blizzard of surveys. They are done by candidates and campaigns, news organizations, academic institutions. They are done by fly-by-night operations that just want the publicity."

While just a handful of organizations conducted national presidential polls in 1960, dozens do them now. The result is a deafening debate over public opinion that often drowns out understanding. And it gets even more confusing when analysts and advocates quote public opinion with little evidence to back up their points.

Tiny shifts in poll numbers of 1 or 2 percentage points are cited as a sign of momentum for a campaign; fragments of poll results are thrown around in heated debate; and advocates seize on whatever numbers support their arguments.

For those trying to make sense of it all, consider these basic guidelines:

— Don't place too much emphasis on any one poll. Look at the results of several good, independent polls over time and consider whether they're all moving in the same direction.

— Don't focus strictly on the head-to-head matchup between the candidates. Political analyst Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution (search) suggests watching the results of questions about the direction of the country, the president's job approval and whether voters want a change in the White House.

— Ignore minor shifts in the polls. Campaigns and the news media often talk about a candidate gaining 1 or 2 percentage points in a new poll, but such talk is meaningless because of the poll's margin of error.

— Don't put too much stock in results of polls done by a political party and released to the public. Negative results from partisan polls may never be publicized. "It would be idiotic for a campaign to skew the results of their poll. But if you get a poll that's negative, you just don't tell reporters about it," said GOP consultant Kim Alfano Doyle.

— Don't assume undecided voters will end up voting for the challenger. Political analysts like to cite that theory, but several factors are different this year — especially the lingering public fear about future terrorist attacks.

— When reading about interesting poll results, look specifically at how the questions were worded and decide whether that may have influenced the responses, says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.

— National polls can be useful for providing an overall sense of what's happening in the campaign. But remember, the election is fought state by state, so watch for reliable polling in key swing states such as Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

— Note that Internet polls do not offer a realistic view of the entire adult population because many people don't have access to computers. When news networks invite viewers to log on to a station's Web site and answer a survey question, consider the results entertainment and not real polling.

For Ornstein, voters are best served by not taking poll results too literally.

"Remember that even if a poll is absolutely accurate, all you're getting is a snapshot in time," said Ornstein. "And don't bet the mortgage on it."