Jazz Shaw asks the provocative question at The Moderate Voice, wondering who really benefits from the public dissemination of so many competing surveys. On both the state and national levels, multiple pollsters using varying methodology have produced results that would indicate landslides for both John McCain and Barack Obama, and just about every possible intermediate result as well. Jazz wonders why these numbers get treated any differently than election-day exit polling, and whether they should get treated the same:
What is the difference between these projections and the public release of polling numbers and projections? The current presidential race would not seem to apply, as the polls are close and seem to shift by the day. But what if one of the candidates opens up a significant (let’s say 15% or better) lead nationally and jumps to a similar lead in the majority of the swing states by late October? If all of the Joe and Jane Sixpacks across the country are sitting down in front of the television on Halloween evening and the news anchors are saying that either McCain or Obama has effectively won the election already, where is the motivation to get out and vote?
What benefit to voters get from having these poll numbers fed to them every day? I can understand how the campaigns would pay to get poll numbers… it’s a useful tool that can help them craft their message and decide where to expend resources for the best chance of victory. And, obviously, polls are great for journalists, bloggers, radio hosts and television talking heads since they give us something else to chatter about while we wait for the next debate or monstrous gaffe. But are the voters served by having this information? Or might it actually toss an otherwise potentially close election out the window?
Is it time for the media, both new and old, to declare a [moratorium] on releasing poll numbers?
Actually, I think the moratorium on the release of exit polling is rather silly. It springs from a patronizing opinion of the American voter that suggests that Joe Sixpack won’t vote unless he feels it the equivalent of the climactic moment of an episode of 24. The ban effectively keeps American voters from seeing the results of exit polls that the media and politicians see until the magic moment when the polls close in California — around 11 pm ET. Supposedly, failures in the past suppressed voter turnout in California during Jimmy Carter’s re-election bid and in the Florida panhandle in 2000.
Of course, exit polling doesn’t do a good job of predicting close elections, but neither does most pre-election polling. Most people understand the issues surrounding polls, including question biases, unbalanced samples, and margins of error. Even accepting that a significant percentage might not understand the nuances of polls, though, does that mean everyone must be sequestered from this information? Again, for most of us, that notion insults our intelligence and the native common sense of the American electorate.
Information is just like any other commodity; one has to be a discerning consumer. Not everything published by the New York Times is worthless, and not everything aired by Fox is brilliant, nor the other way around. Polls that use bad samples and questionable methodology will eventually get exposed, especially when the information is available for the mass market rather than just limited to a small circle of the cognescenti. Only in that manner can we see the raw data that people use to formulate their decisions and policy and determine the validity of their decisions.
I’d say let all of this information be free and allow people to absorb it themselves. People who decide not to vote because the polls don’t look to be swinging in their favor will not have their votes missed in the larger scheme of things. I’d rather treat people as adults in terms of information access than continue with the paternalistic, less-than-benevolent despotism of the media, whose own motives have come under question.