The Latest

THE LATEST

THE LATEST THINKING

THE LATEST THINKING

The opinions of THE LATEST’s guest contributors are their own.

One Election, 331 Polls

Greta Scott

Posted on September 24, 2020 21:32

4 users

We are obsessed with opinion polls. Wikipedia lists 331 polls comparing Trump and Biden’s chances in the election this fall. 331 and counting. The problem with this obsession is that polls present themselves as tools of democracy, based on the assumption that voters' responses and the polling method are accurate. This couldn't be further from the truth.

Voting is supposed to be private, yet polling provides us with a neat way to check which way our neighbors are leaning. But if polling is inaccurate — and I will attempt to summarize why it inevitably is — then surely we shouldn't be so reliant on polls to gauge public opinion?

It's important to remember that the responses given by surveyed people are not spontaneous opinions, but rather phrases chosen out of a list of pre-written responses. These opinions are equally not divided by their intensity, or by how thought-through they are. A pollster could get me on the phone and ask me what I think about the effects of quantitative easing, and group my poorly-thought out response with that of an economist. Pollster George Gallup himself even said that he thought most people's opinions were just sounds that they made. And if you dare to say you don't have an opinion? This is simply discounted. Not only do polls assume that you have an opinion on something, but they assume that every opinion is equal in its intensity. My favorite example of this is an experiment conducted by Gill in 1947, whereby 70% of surveyed people expressed an opinion on the (invented) Metallic Metals Act.

Once we look at the way these results are actually transformed into comprehensible statistics, serious questions can be raised. In 2012 Gallup Inc. incorrectly predicted that Mitt Romney would win the presidential election. Following this minor disaster, Gallup spent six months reviewing its methodology, and established that it had insufficiently contacted the Eastern and Pacific time zones, overestimated the white vote, and had overrepresented the older demographic through its reliance on landline phones. In this day and age, who has a landline? And out of those who do, who's going to agree to answer a survey about current affairs? Middle-aged college graduates. It's these kind of mistake that led pollster Frank Lutz to tweet on November 8th 2016: "Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States."

And why does any of this matter? First, because politicians use polls to gauge public opinion. The themes that dominate electoral campaigns do so because these are the issues that pollsters say the public cares the most about.

Secondly, polls are first and foremost a product which can be sold to newspapers. Results of surveys are distorted by journalists: "think" becomes "want" or "demand," and "62% of surveyed people" becomes "62% of Americans." This then gives politicians a mandate to carry out whatever policy polls well.

Finally, voters are influenced by how they think others will vote. Particularly in countries with a majoritarian electoral system, where tactical voting is necessary, voters will look to polls to see which candidate they should vote for in order to keep their least-liked candidate out of power. Since polls are inevitably inaccurate, this is dangerous territory. As Loïc Blondiaux explains: "A voter should make their choice based on their own conscience, not what their neighbor thinks!"

Greta Scott

Posted on September 24, 2020 21:32

Comments

comments powered by Disqus
Source: The Guardian
4

Fifty-four hopefuls are vying this month to succeed President Michel Martelly - a process that, with local and legislative...

THE LATEST THINKING

Video Site Tour

The Latest
The Latest

Subscribe to THE LATEST Newsletter.

The Latest
The Latest

Share this TLT through...

The Latest