Make Commentator Polls Correct Again: Serious Flaws in Poll Showing Trump Favorite among Students
In his recent article “Poll: Plurality of YU Students Support Trump, 27% Support Clinton,” author Avi Strauss both presents and analyzes the results of a poll concerning the upcoming presidential election conducted by the Commentator. As indicated by the title of the article, the author infers based on the poll results that a plurality of students support Donald Trump. While the article should be seen as an earnest attempt to gauge the voting preferences of YU students, the poll contains several basic and severe methodological flaws and thus it should be discredited as an accurate depiction of the views of the YU community. Moreover, although it is certainly possible that a plurality of students favor Trump, the claim itself is certainly a significant one with a number of repercussions as it would mean that the YU community supports a historically controversial candidate. Thus, despite the understandable lack of time and resources possessed by the Commentator, a more rigorous study would nonetheless be necessary prior to making such a weighty claim.
Prior to discussing the faults with the poll, a brief description of the methodology employed is of order. The details of the methodology used for this poll, while not provided in the article itself, were both described and confirmed by editors of the paper. The survey was sent out by Editor-in-Chief Doron Levine to all undergraduates. Additionally, students traversing through the Rubin Residence Hall were polled in the lobby of the building. The survey asked three questions about the participant’s status in YU, their voting preference, and their confidence in the candidate they intended to vote for.
A prominent issue in the poll is that the author is guilty of sampling bias more generally and self-selection bias in particular, a violation of one of the most basic tenets of survey methodology. Sampling bias is a bias in which a sample is gathered in a manner that some members of the intended population are less likely to be included than others. This is quite clearly an issue in this study. An online survey about political views is likely to attract people who are more active online, interested in politics, read their emails, and have sufficient time and interest to fill out a survey. Furthermore, by polling those in the Rubin building, the sample is biased towards those who live in Rubin Hall and against those who live in other dormitories or off campus. Moreover, participants in the survey were able to vote as many times as they liked, thereby severely damaging the legitimacy of this poll. This flaw in the survey left the door open to Trump supporters to vote as many times as they liked. As has been noted with past controversial presidential candidates like Ron Paul, supporters of these candidates often have a disproportionate online presence. Simply put, Trump supporters may be louder than Clinton supporters and more easily drawn into participating in a survey. Finally, while not appropriate for both the scope and forum of this article, it is noteworthy that the surveyors chose to use a four-point scale for evaluating confidence of the participants as opposed to a five- or seven-point scale. Four-point scales force participants into taking a side because there is no “middle ground.” This may be another fault in the study.
The repercussions of claiming that a plurality of YU students favor Trump are varied in their severity but a few are of note. The author himself notes that surprisingly, a larger percentage of female students support Trump than male students, despite Trump having a history of sexist or negative comments. While left open to interpretation by the author, the implication of such a statistic is that these comments and stances are of lesser significance to Beren Campus voters than other issues. Additionally, regardless of one’s political stances, it is quite clear that Donald Trump is a historically controversial candidate that has made a number of loaded comments against certain religions and ethnicities. The Commentator should not be so quick to attribute such opinions to the YU community if it does not have sufficient basis for doing so. I hope the newspaper will be more wary in both conducting and interpreting future polls.