I know we went through all of this in 2016, but the subject is rearing its head yet again as recriminations abound over what the pollsters (and their obedient servants in the mainstream media) told us going into this election and what actually happened last night. To be fair to the pollsters, they did predict that there would be many close races across the nation, but the general consensus held that we were about to witness a fairly clear victory for Joe Biden and a “blue wave,” or perhaps a wavelet for Democrats in the House and Senate. So that didn’t work out all that well, did it? Over at the Daily Beast, Matt Lewis seems to be fed up with the whole thing and he has a message for the political polling industry. “You suck.”
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the pollsters. The smart money may still be on Joe Biden to eventually prevail as the 2020 presidential election winner, but I’ve seen enough to declare the polling industry, and its cousin, “probabilistic election forecasting,” as the biggest losers.
I’m not alone in thinking this. Republican pollster Frank Luntz told Axios “the political polling profession is done” after Tuesday. “Political polling is a fraud,” writes conservative John Podhoretz in the New York Post. It turns out that “Trump PTSD” from 2016 wasn’t a paranoid or out-of-touch response; it was a smart defense mechanism. At one point, the night felt eerily reminiscent of 2016, which is to say, the so-called experts blew it. Again. Even if Biden goes on to win, it’s a far cry from the landslide we were led to expect.
Probabilistic forecasting, which is tightly tied to the polling industry, has harmed our understanding of elections and the electorate. That’s because it creates an inherent veneer of certainty, no matter how hard you insist otherwise. We were all better off when folks used to just say “polls are snapshots and things can always change.” The whole allure of data journalism was that it would bring objective clarity, and it just isn’t.
Matt goes on to remind us that all of the high profile data geeks and their sophisticated methods and models are only as good as the polls. “Which is to say, they suck.” He cites a number of examples, including an ABC News poll that had Biden up by 17 in Wisconsin. (That race didn’t get called until this afternoon and Trump was leading for a while.) Others he points to show how the polls have managed to get Florida “comically wrong” for three straight even-year election cycles. Several polls had Biden leading narrowly in the Sunshine State going into Tuesday. (They called that race for Trump early.) Yet another put Ohio at a “virtual tie” and yet Trump cruised to a relatively easy win, albeit in single digits. Other examples abound.
Matt gives plenty of reasons for being “done” with political polling, but like junkies who have taken that first free hit of crack, once you start imbibing the product it can be hard to quit. If you’re a political analyst, pundit, blogger, or any other type of commentator on American politics, polling is one of your primary sources of ostensibly scientific data to base your conclusions on. Heck, when I put up my predictions for the election last night, I bought into the professional consensus that Susan Collins had finally reached the end of the road in Maine and predicted she would lose. Her opponent conceded shortly after lunch today.
But that doesn’t mean that I’m happy being a junkie who seeks out the professional pollsters. I’ve long bemoaned the existence of the polling industry in its current form for a couple of reasons. First of all, even when the pollsters are on the money, having daily reminders of who is going to blow the doors off of whom in the next election is little more than a depressing drumbeat that drives down turnout and enthusiasm for whoever the loser is projected to be. Who wants to support a loser, right?
But that factor gets amplified when you consider how heavily cable news and the major newspapers rely on these polls to generate headlines. This is particularly true when the Republican or conservative in any battle is supposedly polling poorly. The celebrations on the panels at CNN and NBC News are barely contained. They remind everyone how unpopular the perceived “evil” party or candidate is and how deserving they will be of the trouncing to come. And despite the pathetic record some of these polls have established of late, people keep eating it up. It was really something of a miracle that Donald Trump saw the near-record turn out that he did.
So are we “done” with polling? I’m afraid not. It’s baked into the cake at this point. We’ll have this argument about how useless it all is for a few weeks and then we’ll go back to quoting the polls as we begin to heat up for the next election. Take my word for it. The polling on this question virtually guarantees it.