A modest proposal regarding election polling: let's not do it

In today’s edition of the Morning Jolt, our friend Jim Geraghty has some kindly words of caution when it comes to interpreting election polls. After pointing out that polls are most often right (or at least somewhere in the ballpark of reality), with a few instances of monumental blunders, and that outliers which give you news you like may be simply that… outliers, he offers this soothing advice.

We cannot just hope that the pollster who’s telling us what we want to hear the most is the one who is right. When one tracking poll is consistently giving us good news and the rest are consistently giving us bad news, maybe that one tracking poll is right and everyone else is wrong… or maybe it’s just an outlier. It is irresponsible for a campaign and a party to take a leap of faith that the best-case scenario is about to occur.

Absorbing bad news and negative feedback and learning from it is how campaigns get better. Blind denial of evidence suggesting that what they’re offering isn’t appealing to the largest slice of the electorate is how they go careening off the cliff.

I’m not here to take issue with Jim’s premise. In fact, I would argue that it’s tough to dispute much of what he’s saying. History is on his side. We’ve certainly seen some tracking polls and other regularly scheduled surveys which seemed a bit, er… heavily leaning toward one candidate or the other which suddenly and unexpectedly shifted to a much tighter race in the final week, but proving any intentional malice behind that is a heavy lift. And the majority of them do seem to be mostly in agreement as of today when you allow for margins of error in sample construction.

No, I have not come before my fellow citizens to defend and praise the election polls, but to bury them. (My apologies to Shakespeare fans for that one.) Rather than worrying about how to “fix” the polls to provide us with an unbiased picture of the state of the race, we should simply eliminate the publication of election poll results entirely.

A radical idea? Perhaps. It’s also a fairly career suicidal one because I can take a look at all of the articles published here at Hot Air over the past year and I’m guessing that at least ten percent of them are poll analysis. (It might be higher than that.) What else are we supposed to talk about when nobody is voting?

But this is a sacrifice that the media, both old and new, should be willing to make for the good of the nation. The releasing of the results of voter preference polls don’t really provide any value to the actual voters even if we believe that they’re spot on accurate, and in fact can produce harmful outcomes. Why do you need to know how everyone else is voting before you make up your mind. Does your own opinion count for so little?

I’m not suggesting putting an end to all polling and driving the workers in an entire industry to the unemployment lines. Voter preference polls can still be done and used internally by the campaigns as productive tools when decided where and how to deploy their resources. And the pollsters could most certainly continue to do surveys on issues and release those. That could give hints as to how people might vote and be used in kitchen table debates on the weighty matters of the day.

I’m also not suggesting that the government handle this matter by outlawing the release of any polling data. That would be a First Amendment nightmare and further expand the power of the behemoth we’re supposedly trying to keep in check. This could be done voluntarily. Journalists have made other agreements in the past, such as not releasing the exit polls on election day until the polls close. (Though that’s in danger now also.) They could reach a similar agreement about not broadcasting the voter preference poll results.

Why? Because telling everyone that a particular candidate or referendum proposal is doing fabulously well or is sure to lose can and does affect the outcome of the vote. It goes back to the old Observer Effect in physics which holds that the act of measuring something impacts the results you obtain. It can be argued that focusing the entire nation’s attention on poll results can actually depress voting or lead to wasted votes on hopeless candidates when people begin thinking along these lines:

“Hey, since that (jerk or jerkette) is going to win anyway and my party’s candidate is too (bombastic and crazy or scandal ridden and corrupt) for me to truly fall in love with, maybe I’ll just go cast a vote for that pleasant sounding politician from Blunderbucket, Wyoming who said something about dog parks and leash laws that I agree with.”

Alright… so this suggestion is a bit tongue in cheek to say the least and I can’t imagine it possibly happening. But perhaps we could at least be a bit more mindful about the use and distribution of polling in the future. It really doesn’t serve anyone except cable news spokesmodels and bloggers who need more material to fill up the news cycle.

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