No matter which side of the recent presidential election you were on, you should be concerned about something — the accuracy and reliability of election year polling. Polling is likely to be one of the casualties of the election and count me among those who will not shed a tear at its demise.
If you even casually followed the race between President-Elect Donald Trump and Secretary Hillary Clinton you likely know that news organizations from the prominent to the relatively unknown had Clinton winning the race fairly handily. It was almost a given among the news media that Clinton would be our next president.
Of course, those polls were wrong.
It should upset and anger you as a voter that the media relies on these polls to the extent that they do. It cheapens this important process and focuses on one of the worst instincts of human nature — wanting to know the outcome of an event before it happens. To me, polls are like the pre-game NFL shows that air for hours before the slate of Sunday NFL games. Announcers and analysts breathlessly give their “expert” opinion on who will win and who will lose a game and they break down a few reasons why. Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re not. But my question is not who’s right and who’s wrong. My question is why do we care what they think?
It’s similar with election polling. We take these “expert” polls at face value. How many of us really consider that the pollsters only spoke to 500 or 800 people? How many of us really look to see what the margin of error is on a poll? Without a true understanding of some of the issues with polls, voters get baited into thinking the outcome is pre-ordained. I’d bet these polls have a serious impact on voters. If I see that my candidate is way behind in the polls, for instance, I might believe that my vote — just one vote — might not make much a difference so I stay home and don’t even bother with standing in line on election day. Conversely, if my chosen candidate appears well ahead in the polls, I might not bother with voting because I figure my candidate’s got in the bag. That’s a problem.
So, why does the media use them and report each poll like it’s breaking news? I believe it’s to try and get a gauge of what American voters are thinking. It’s also because many of the media organizations pay for this polling and it isn’t cheap, so they want to get some bang for their buck. It’s also something that news anchors and analysts can talk about and pretend is true, issue-oriented campaign coverage.
But this election, many of the pollsters were dead wrong.
In a post-mortem on last week’s election, the head of the respected Pew Research Center’s survey research division admitted to ABC News that polling is not intended to be an end-all, be-all. Polls “are not designed to provide extremely accurate results,” Courtney Kennedy admitted.
But the problems with polling have been known for some time.
Cliff Zukin, a pollster, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times last year that focused on the problem with polling:
“Election polling is in near crisis, and we pollsters know. Two trends are driving the increasing unreliability of election and other polling in the United States: the growth of cellphones and the decline in people willing to answer surveys.”
Because of that Zukin writes, it has “opened the door for less scientifically based, less well-tested techniques.”
If that’s the case, should polls play such a prominent role in election coverage when trying to predict who is likely to become the next leader of the free world?
Another problem is that the response rate to polls has declined significantly over the past few decades. “By 2014,” Zukin admits, “the response rate (to polling inquiries) had fallen to 8 percent.” It’s difficult to get a true feel for the feelings and beliefs of the “average American” with that low of a response rate.
Then there is the issue of whether survey respondents are actually going to vote to make their responses to a pollster’s questions matter.
Zukin: “It is not uncommon for 60 percent to report that they definitely plan to vote in an election in which only 40 percent will actually turn out.” That puts stress on pollsters to guess which people will actually vote in order to make their surveys reliable.
The science of polling faces an uncertain future after the 2016 election. Should Americans continue to trust polling? Should the media? it’s my belief that polls should be less relied upon in favor of true, fact-based campaign reporting.