Thursday, January 14, 2016

Polls wrong 100% of the time

The phone rang. “Would you like to answer a few questions?” [This was back in the dark ages of the 1980’s when you actually answered the phone.] It was Gallup calling. They wanted my opinion! I spent the next 45 minutes on a call with somebody who was clearly doing this for the first time – and I missed a wonderful dinner my mother had cooked. It was for the greater good, I self-justified.  I was one of those selected people who’s opinions was going to make a difference! The optimism of youth has now turned into the cynicism of someone not so young. Time isn’t solely responsible for the transition – a changing world is as well. Technology has advanced so that everybody’s opinions can be gathered and everything seems to be voted on.

In 2006 more people voted for Taylor Hicks on American Idol than voted for President. Polls have become so easy and sophisticated that anybody can do them. On any subject.

Debate-org has an entire section of “funny” polls. And Gallup continues to take its role seriously. Real Clear Politics has both a listing of all polls and an average of major polls. Republican candidates have been ‘debating’ for several months – but with so many candidates the various sponsors of the events have limited the number of people on stage. They’ve done so based on polling – determining who is a ‘tier 1’ candidate and who is a ‘lower tier’ candidate.

Several weeks from this January writing will be the first votes of the 2016 Presidential season. Shortly thereafter there will be campaigns that end. But some didn’t wait for the votes to come in before dropping out. Major candidates for the GOP nomination who have already quit:
  • Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal
  • Former New York Governor George Pataki
  • South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham
  • Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker
  • Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore
  • Former Texas Governor Rick Perry
  • Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee (onetime GOP but was running for Dem nom)

The lack of fundraising and media interest make the determination to quit the race a seemingly well reasoned one. These candidates also didn’t poll much above 1%, if that. Bar none each of the dropouts have referred to their standing in the polls - as if they matter more than the votes themselves. There’s something quite disconcerting and almost disturbing that polls have the level of influence that they do.

The National Council on Public Polls every few years releases a report on the accuracy of polls by election cycle. They’ve never been right. The percent that they’ve been off may seem relatively small and insignificant – but if candidates are determined to be viable based on this data, shouldn’t it be more exacting? And why is society so impatient to need to know the result of something before it happens? 

Media will report on polls more easily and completely than on the underlying issues. It easier. Who’s up and who’s down is a quick and easy narrative to tell. ("Bernie surges...") Then the questions about strategy and how to ‘get ahead’ are standard stories. Lost in the sea of coverage is that none of that data is based on anything but conjecture. It’s what somebody’s thinking in the moment and is easily changed.

In a free and open democracy people should be able to spend years running for President if they want. Citizens have an equal right to steer pollsters to crazy candidates and prove them wrong on election day. Let’s hope that’s what’s happening in 2016 when we’ll prove that 100% of all polls are wrong!

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