Cantor vs. Brat: Why polling fails

The Cantor campaign’s catastrophe is not without modern precedent, even if the size and scope were extreme. Anyone remember Al Gore winning Florida, John Kerry winning Ohio and, of course, President Mitt Romney?

The simple truth remains that one in 20 polls — by the simple rules of math — misses the mark. That’s why there is that small but seemingly invisible “health warning” at the end of every poll, about the 95 percent confidence level. Even if every scientific approach is applied perfectly, 5 percent of all polls will end up outside the margin of error. They are electoral exercises in Russian roulette. Live by the poll; die by the poll.

Yet that is no excuse. Our job is to get it right. When we fail, we should be held accountable. What is worse, if it’s true, is the suggestion that the Cantor poll was leaked in order to sabotage the other side by suggesting that the majority leader’s lead was insurmountable. In this case, not only was the poll inaccurate, the tactic was inept. It may have created momentum for the other side rather than crushing it, and lends legitimacy to the public skepticism aimed at our craft of late.