Monday, October 8, 2012

The Insidious Influence of Political Polls

Electoral votes based on recent polls
The U.S. Presidential Election is just a month away, and if you’re at all curious about how the election may go, you’re in luck, just turn your attention to the latest political polls. You can compare the national approval ratings for president Obama and (former) Governor Romney, how favorably they’re viewed by “likely” voters, and who’s leading who in swing states like Ohio, Virginia, and Florida. You can note which has the advantage on issues like unemployment, foreign affairs, and government debt. You can survey how the candidates compare among young voters, retirees, minorities, and women. You can follow how the race is tracking on a day-to-day basis. If you’re interested in just about any measure of how Americans may vote on November 6, there’s likely a poll for it. They’re all just a Google search away, knock yourself out.

Political polls are everywhere in the run-up to every major election, they’re quoted by the media, consulted by the campaigns, and, they’re bad.

To explain why this is, I’d ask that you first consider a question: Why should you, a voter deciding on how to cast your ballot come Election Day, care at all about political polls?

Polls Aren’t Science
Pollsters, and there’s a bunch,1 will tell you that their polls are scientific and accurate. This is not true. Their argument is that their methodology ensures that a statistically representative sample of voters is used in every poll. The overall number of responders, the political leanings of those responders, the questions asked, etc., are carefully calibrated to give an outcome that is accurate within a small margin of error. This gives the sheen of science to the whole effort, as if polls are just another demographic study based on heaps of concrete data. They’re not. It’s certainly true that over the decades pollsters have learned how to better sample the population. Gone are the days when polls showed Alf Landon2 beating FDR. But at the end of the day, polls are based on the responses of people, and when it comes to people and politics, you can throw science out the window.

Consider the emphasis in the following question: “Do you agree that President Obama has done a poor job in addressing unemployment?” Admittedly, this is a very simplified example of obvious bias, which is supposed to be scrubbed from all modern poll questions. An unbiased question would better read: “Do you approve or disapprove of the way President Obama is handling the economy?” But here is an actual question from a Washington Post poll from late last month: “Do you think the federal government should or should not pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans?” Would you call this question unbiased? Maybe you think it is. Or maybe you consider terms like “reduce the gap”, “wealthy”, and “less well-off” as loaded and apt to nudge responders in a certain direction. What if the question were reworded this way: “Do you think the federal government should or should not pursue policies that try to shift wealth from those Americans better-off to those less well–off?” Which wording is more biased and are they likely to elicit different responses? This shows you just how hard, and maybe impossible, it is to actually extract bias from any political discussion. If you can’t take bias out of the questions, how can you have an unbiased poll?

Then there is sampling and response bias. Most polls are conducted by calling people with landline phones, which is becoming an increasing anachronistic approach in the era of mobile communications. Consider the constantly shifting demographics (age, sex, economic background) of people that use landlines as opposed to cell phones. What groups are over- or under-represented in surveys conducted in this manner? Further, when are the surveys conducted, during what days and at what times (i.e., who is home when the calls are placed?)? How might this affect the bias of the results?

With response bias people may answer in a manner contrary to what they believe or refuse to participate at all. After all, how honest are people when talking to strangers about politics, a sensitive subject for many? What type of person is willing (and available) to participate? How representative is that person, or that aggregated group of people, of the voting population at large? These questions aren’t easy to answer or dismiss.

Here’s a good example of how these factors can combine for bad polling. Back in 2004, pre-election polling showed a very close race in Virginia between President Bush and Senator John Kerry. And this seemed to be confirmed on Election Day when exit polls indicated that Kerry was performing very well. Yet when the actual votes were counted, Bush led Kerry by a wide margin at all times (he won comfortably 54% to 46%). The networks didn’t call Virginia in Bush’s favor for many hours after the voting ended based on the strength of the inaccurate pre-election and exit polls.3

Polls are bandied about as accurate and unbiased. In other words as a useful indicators of how the public is likely to vote. But they’re often neither accurate nor unbiased. What’s the practical difference between a bad poll and the daily political spin issued by a campaign? Intentional or not, aren’t they both forms of misinformation?

Politics is Not a Spectator Sport
It’s hard not to see the same relationship between political polls and politics as we see between sports and sports statistics. Professional and college sports are one of the tent poles of the vast and growing American entertainment complex, and statistics are the drug of sports enthusiasts;4 the careful tracking of performance, the rankings, the orderly measure of players, teams, and leagues. There’s long been a cottage industry built around baseball statistical research; fantasy football, which is all about statistics, is one of the most popular recreational activities in America; the essence of entire sports are based on standings and rankings, and a player’s worth is determined in hard data. As a nation of spectators we love to watch sports – you could probably argue that the next Superbowl will be a more watched event than the upcoming election – and statistics give us more to talk about and discuss. It seems weightier to parse a team’s statistics and analyze performance based on numbers than to simply describe and appreciate the physical competition. It’s the data-science companion to the physical action-art.

For some, politics is the sport of choice. But of course politics isn’t a sport, it’s not entertainment. At its core politics is about how as a society we choose to live together, and it involves complex, convolved issues. Issues that are hard to fully understand yet have an important effect on everyday life. It’s hard to understand the current tax structure and the implications of changes to the tax code; health care is a confusing tangle of doctors and medicine, hospitals and insurance, regulations and paperwork; unemployment, gay marriage, abortion, education, government debt, the European financial crisis, war in the Middle East, they all dominate the headlines but none of them have easy solutions. The real societal issues of the day, the issues that make up the political landscape, all require strenuous discussion and wearisome compromise. It’s hard, not fun; it’s tedious, not exciting.

Just a few of the networks that make sport of politics
But following political polls, seeing who’s leading who, how the race is going, is exciting.5 Following a campaign to see if candidate X is gaining ground on candidate Y is a lot more fun than wading into, and thinking deeply about, dense political policy. Just consider that sports/competition terms that elections are couched in: the “race” for a nomination or election, which candidate or party is “leading” in the polls, is the trailing candidate “gaining” on the leader or is the leader “pulling away”, is there a “game changing” moment in a campaign, what “moves” does the trailing candidate have. And these are but a small sampling. Polls are the data that fuel this spectating. Media can better attract their audience by pushing poll data than by boring them with the nuances of one candidate’s position versus another. This sport-making of politics may make for better television but it doesn’t make for a more informed electorate. Fewer political polls and more serious political discussion would.

So this is another way that polls are bad, they turn politics into sport, and distract from the actual point of an election. We hold elections so we (society) can come to a loose consensus on how we want government to behave and what policies we want enacted/followed/amended/repealed, etc. over the next couple of years. Only the most cynical among us see elections as entertainment, yet that’s how they’re framed for us and polls are an integral part of this altered perspective.

The Insidious Influence of Polls
But the worst way that political polls are bad is in the way that they can actually influence voters and affect elections. Any voter’s decision on who to vote for should be based on their values and on how they believe any particular candidate will represent those values, or pursue a platform congenial to that voter’s desires, or at the very least, lead in a manner that they (the voter) believes will best serve the interests of the country. You can dice this perspective any number of ways to determine what that specifically means to each voter, but what it should never mean is that a voter chooses based on how others are voting.

Yet this is precisely what political polls can lead to, bandwagon voting. I’m sure you’re familiar with the bandwagon effect. Returning briefly to sports, a successful team picks up a lot of fans who want to share in the winning spirit. These fans jump on the bandwagon. The same fans are known to jump off the bandwagon when times turn sour. Well with voting it’s the same way. People want to vote for the winner. And who’s going to win but the person leading in the polls.

This is exactly contrary to how people should vote. Casting your ballot in favor of how the majority is going to vote because you want to be part of the winning “team” is selfless voting. I’m using the term “selfless” in the negative sense. Voting made not based on informed self-interest but upon group-think; voting to be part of the crowd. I don’t think this type of voting should be encouraged, yet the bandwagon effect is a well-established phenomenon and it is abetted by polls that show who is “winning” a campaign heading into Election Day.

So going back to the question posed as the beginning of this post (i.e., Why should you care about polls?), is there even one good answer? They’re false entertainment, often misleading, and they distract from the genuine responsibility of each voter. Polls are bad, and personally I can’t wait until November 7 when I won’t have to hear any more about them, at least until the next election.6



1. To name a few: Zogby, Rasmussen, Gallup, Harris, Pew, Neilsen, and then every news network (Foxnews, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, etc.).

2. Alf Landon was the 1936 GOP candidate and he was annihilated by incumbent Franklin Roosevelt who garnered 61% of the popular vote, 523 of 531 electoral votes, and 46 of the 48 states.

3. Whereas this writer, with no polling data or expertise, clearly saw that president Bush would win in Virginia once the first 20 percent of the votes were in. Such is the belief in polls that even the obvious was not enough to change the minds of the political experts commentating for the major new networks.

4. Male sports enthusiasts anyway, and hardcore sports fans are still mostly male.

5. For some people anyway.

6. This of course presumes that the polls themselves don’t become a major story, like they have in past elections, like say 2002 and 2004, when exit polls in many states (see Virginia discussion above) were wildly inaccurate and there was much questioning in the media in the days that follow about how the polls could have been so far off.

1 comment:

  1. You make good points but I think polls provide good information and can show politicians where they need to focus their attention.