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Is Political Polling Dead?

The 2020 election didn’t go as pollsters predicted. Democrat Joe Biden did pull off a strong Electoral College victory, but he did it with razor thin wins in a handful of key swing states, not by the larger margins expected. Overall, polls vastly underestimated Donald Trump’s support, just as they did in the 2016 election that he wasn’t projected to win. Those and other recent miscues have led to a re-examination of the political polling industry, with some critics saying that the rise of cellphones and caller ID, in particular, have made it difficult for pollsters to reach a broad selection of voters. A public policy professor and a director of research at a major polling company face off about whether political polling is done for.

Political polling is a zombie: It walks amongst us, trying to eat our brains, and we should kill it.

Polls that attempt to show which candidate is ahead in a campaign or who is likely to win should be ignored. Polls get it right sometimes, but even when election polls are accurate, they produce no public benefit and may indeed harm our democratic system. So let’s drive a stake into political polling’s heart.

In 2016, poll after poll predicted that Hillary Clinton would easily become the 45th president. In fact, it was Donald Trump who won 30 states, 306 electoral votes, and the presidency. In swing state after swing state, the pollsters overestimated Clinton’s support and minimized Trump’s. The polls were off again in 2020. Even though Joe Biden won, as predicted, the polls vastly overestimated his support in all 18 states where the results were close.

Political polls are likely to be wrong for two big reasons. For polls to be accurate, they have to predict who will actually vote, and they have to get these people to respond to the poll. Pollsters can’t do either of these things well, and they’re getting worse at both.

Polls don’t tell the public anything useful about political candidates.

And what useful information do election polls actually provide? Does knowing who’s up or down in the latest poll help voters make up their minds on whether, and for whom, to vote? No. Polls don’t tell the public anything useful about whether a candidate is competent, wise, or benevolent, or whether their policies would benefit the public. But polls can influence public behavior, as voters flock to or flee from candidates based on their perceived popularity in a poll.

There’s nothing harmful about choosing your favorite songs based on their perceived popularity (or, to hipsters, their lack of popularity). But polls are a terrible way to assess the candidates who, if elected, will decide matters of war and peace, poverty and prosperity. Bury them. 

 

—MARK ROM

Professor McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University

Political polling will be with us for years to come because it’s still reliable and needed.

In 1935, when George Gallup started the polling company that bears his name, he focused on political polling because of his deep interest in discovering “the will of the people.” How did the American public think President Franklin D. Roosevelt was doing his job? Did they favor laws to outlaw child labor? Is government spending on welfare too high or too low?

Questions like those are still critical today. And it should never be far from our minds that the Declaration of Independence makes it clear that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Polling tells us whether government is serving the people.

Polling is an essential way to monitor that consent—in other words, whether government is serving the people. And it’s still the only way to do this accurately and objectively. Without polling, leaders are reduced to relying on anecdotal and subjective information. Today, that could include social media, which is known for amplifying extreme views rather than reflecting public opinion in its true form.

Political polling also has a bright future because it works. The basic science of randomly selecting Americans to be polled remains a powerful method for knowing what the public thinks within a margin of error of plus or minus a few percentage points. Reputable polls mostly achieve this by contacting respondents by telephone (both cellphone and landline). Although reaching people has become more difficult, polls still achieve random samples that are reflective of society as a whole. Election polls have the added complication of needing to predict who will vote, and, as we saw in 2020, they aren’t always spot on. But election pollsters have a track record of learning from their mistakes, and I’m confident they will use the problems that arose in 2020 to improve.

At a time when Americans are divided and trust in information is in decline, there has never been a more important time for the public to have faith in the science of polling to dispassionately document the will of the people.

 

—LYDIA SAAD

Director of U.S. Social Research, Gallup

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