I am not a fan of The New Yorker, but occasionally there are items worth sharing within its pages. An article they published on polling by Jill Lepore is both interesting and disturbing in light of how much we are relying on political polling this election cycle.
I’m intrigued with polls like any political junkie, but are we relying too much upon them?
I would say definitely yes, and it is harmful to the electoral process.
Consider our debates for instance, all of the Republican debates are based on national polling. You also have the rise of Donald Trump in the polls which drove the news which then drove polling and on and on. Now we see the same pattern with Ben Carson.
Lately, the Sea of Polls is deeper than ever before, and darker. From the late nineteen-nineties to 2012, twelve hundred polling organizations conducted nearly thirty-seven thousand polls by making more than three billion phone calls. Most Americans refused to speak to them. This skewed results. Mitt Romney’s pollsters believed, even on the morning of the election, that Romney would win. A 2013 study—a poll—found that three out of four Americans suspect polls of bias. Presumably, there was far greater distrust among the people who refused to take the survey.
The modern public-opinion poll has been around since the Great Depression, when the response rate—the number of people who take a survey as a percentage of those who were asked—was more than ninety. The participation rate—the number of people who take a survey as a percentage of the population—is far lower. Election pollsters sample only a minuscule portion of the electorate, not uncommonly something on the order of a couple of thousand people out of the more than two hundred million Americans who are eligible to vote. The promise of this work is that the sample is exquisitely representative. But the lower the response rate the harder and more expensive it becomes to realize that promise, which requires both calling many more people and trying to correct for “non-response bias” by giving greater weight to the answers of people from demographic groups that are less likely to respond. Pollster.com’s Mark Blumenthal has recalled how, in the nineteen-eighties, when the response rate at the firm where he was working had fallen to about sixty per cent, people in his office said, “What will happen when it’s only twenty? We won’t be able to be in business!” A typical response rate is now in the single digits.
Meanwhile, polls are wielding greater influence over American elections than ever. In May, Fox News announced that, in order to participate in its first prime-time debate, hosted jointly with Facebook, Republican candidates had to “place in the top ten of an average of the five most recent national polls.” Where the candidates stood on the debate stage would also be determined by their polling numbers. (Ranking in the polls had earlier been used to exclude third-party candidates.) Scott Keeter, Pew’s director of survey research, is among the many public-opinion experts who found Fox News’s decision insupportable. “I just don’t think polling is really up to the task of deciding the field for the headliner debate,” Keeter told me. Bill McInturff doesn’t think so, either. McInturff is a co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, the leading Republican polling organization; with its Democratic counterpart, Hart Research Associates, he conducts the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. “I didn’t think my job was to design polling so that Fox could pick people for a debate,” McInturff told me. Really, it’s not possible to design a poll to do that.
- Vet the candidates yourself. The media is doing you a disservice by focusing their attention to those who are leading the polls. Don’t be a low information voter.
- Determining electability based on current polling, especially national polling is foolish.
- Basing your vote on polling is even more foolish. Christians should base their vote on principles and a candidate’s record based on those principles first and foremost.
- The Republican Party needs to stop the foolishness of using national polling as debate criteria. We don’t have a national primary and the likelihood the polling is accurate is questionable anyway.