Stop hating on polls

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Public Opinion Poll, on display at the Smithsonian

Public Domain

Public Opinion Poll, on display at the Smithsonian

Public Opinion Poll, on display at the Smithsonian

Public Opinion Poll, on display at the Smithsonian

Tis the season to hate on polls, and from Jill Lapore in the New Yorker to Brooke Gladstone at On the Media, the verdict is that they A Bad Thing for the American electoral process. Put me down as a dissenter.

Sure, polling is an inexact science that has gotten more inexact in recent years. There are geographically untethered cell phones to factor in. Between Caller ID and sheer grumpiness, increasing numbers of citizens decline to answer — and when they do, they may be fibbing more than before. This year there have been notable failures to accurately predict election results from Israel to Great Britain to Kentucky.

And perhaps the media do pay a little too much attention to polls. A year or more before an election is held, a lot of Americans are barely paying attention to who their next congressman, senator, or president will be. So there is limited value in asking who they would vote for “if the election were held today.” Etc.

But consider the alternative. Imagine that a total of zero polls had been conducted in the present presidential campaign.

Jeb Bush would still be being sold as the Republican front-runner. Donald Trump would be considered merely joke-worthy. Rick Perry and Scott Walker would still be with us. No one would ever have known that Ben Carson once enjoyed significant support. Crowds or no crowds, Rand Paul would have been treated as consequential. Crowds or no crowds, Bernie Sanders would have been treated as inconsequential.

In other words, we would be viewing the campaign from inside the green room even more than we are now. Wise heads in the media would be talking to wise heads in the parties would be talking to spinmeisters in the campaigns. A report from the field of popular enthusiasm or its absence regarding a particular candidate would be dismissed by the editor’s desk if it ran against the wisdom of the moment. A well-delivered debate one-liner would mean the difference between contender and also-ran.

Horse-race polling may be imperfect, but it provides a way for ordinary people to register their views, collectively and tranche by tranche. And if you think ordinary people aren’t paying attention to the campaign at this point in time, go to Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina.

Nor is it just that polls provide a check on the pundit class. They also provide clues to what the campaigns themselves are up to — in a way that enables reporters to shine a spotlight on the forces at work in the electoral process. In my little corner of the media world, white evangelicals are of particular interest. They are the single largest voting bloc in the GOP — the creation of the religious right that has profoundly affected national politics since 1980.

Happily, white evangelicals are asked to identify themselves as such (or not) in many national polls as well as in most polls in states with large evangelical populations. This has provided the empirical evidence to identify the source of Ben Carson’s early support, and to track its shift to Ted Cruz as Carson has faded as a candidate.

Now tell me that is false, uninteresting, or worthless information.

  • Chaplain Martin

    Mark,
    Put me down as a dissenter from the polls, from the politics of the GOP and the way the DNC in treating good ole Bernie. I think back to the day in which the political parties chose their nominations for president by the good ole backroom deals. They, actually seemed better than the primaries. I like the primaries, at first, then they turned into a not so funny circus.

  • drwho13

    First, I want to make it clear that I have no problem with phone polls.

    But, “The National Do Not Call Registry gives you a choice about whether to receive telemarketing calls at home. Most telemarketers should not call your number…” (does not apply to pollsters).

    Then the Federal Trade Commission first instituted the “Do Not Call Registry” it was very effective at stopping telemarketing calls. Now, for reasons unknown to me, it’s worthless. I receive anywhere from one to five telemarketing calls a day, even though I signed up with the FTC.

    I clearly understand that the “Do Not Call Registry” does not to stop calls related to polls. However, after being harassed by telemarketers all day, almost everyday, I have gotten grumpy! As a result, unless I know the person calling me, I will not pickup the phone.

  • samuel johnston

    drwho13,
    My story as well.

  • Stephen Kent Gray

    Polling is even worse than using divination to try and figure out what people support politically. That would be true even if cellphones were polled as well as landlines, everyone responded to polls, and everyone was completely honest in polls. It is even more true in that only land lines are called, only a small percentage of people called even respond to polls, and we have no real knowledge of the honest of poll responses. I for one have never been called by a poll. I generally think Internet poll are more accurate, but traditional telephone polls are obsolete and outdated.

    Therefore, we should get rid of telephone polling and replace it with Internet polling. It is much more up to date with society and social media as well as not falling victim to the above listed flaws of telephone polling.

  • Jim

    Polls are just snapshots of current opinions. They are helpful when you look at long range trends that show a candidate’s standing.

  • Ron

    One thing that most people fail to take into account is that human beings are very poor at predicting their own future actions. A simple example is that, right now, I may fully intend to spend 30 minutes checking e-mail – until my daughter needs something, I develop a need to use the bathroom, my computer shuts down unexpectedly, or I simply find something more interesting or important to do or change my mind.

    Polls measure what people are thinking RIGHT NOW. A day, week, or month from now, when they actually go to vote, their thinking may change (or they may fail to vote, or a candidate may have done something to change that thinking). This does not mean the polls are wrong – it means human behavior is very difficult to predict and it is an inexact science. This is exacerbated when a race is 51/49 rather than 60/40, because all polls also have some margin of error.

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  • Fiona

    What can possibly polls tell you on the elections especially if they are online ones? There was an investigation in 2013 in India and USA on how the manipulations with Internet information distribution (through google for example) can influence people’s preferences. The outcome showed that it can change political preferences up to 80%.
    If someone is interested in the exact data thetermpapers.net can help.