Friday, October 15, 2010

The Pitfalls of Polling

Looking back, it seems that election day “surprises” have become the norm rather than the exception.

For the first few decades after television began broadcasting play-by-play forecasts and results of elections, things were fairly predictable. The populace was much less mobile than it is today, and virtually all voters had land lines. In many precincts, the turnout and trends were so stable that pollsters could safely add data from the last election to the tally of the current one without being far off the mark. Votes were cast on a specific day at neighborhood polling places, so exit interviews with people who had just voted could result in fairly accurate estimates of which way a particular neighborhood was going swing. Add the survey results together, and voilà! The result was sometimes a foregone conclusion long before the polls closed.

This predictability was problematic for a number of reasons and very likely skewed the results of some elections. Voters on the West Coast—not to mention Hawaii—often knew the results of national races long before the polls closed in their own state. In such cases, many didn’t bother to vote, knowing it would be a pointless exercise. Getting a mail-in ballot could be harder than it is today to file income tax, so those who couldn’t get to their local polling place on the appointed day, for one reason or another, often just didn’t bother. Without the deluge of ads and information on radio, television, and the Internet that inundates today’s voters, the voters of yesteryear tended to make up their minds earlier and change them less often.

Back in the day, “Gallop” and “polling” were synonymous. Today there are hundreds of polling companies, local and national, many of them dedicated to gathering information specifically for one party or the other. So prevalent have they become that there are now people who poll the pollsters, as well as numerous columns and blogs (such as fivethirtyeight) that do nothing but compare and analyze polling data.

The upshot of all this is that, in contrast to other historically significant elections, no one really has clue as to what will happen on November 2. That fact is undoubtedly giving many candidates serious heartburn.

For us spectators, however, it just makes the races all the more fun.

1 comment:

Six said...

This is an interesting election. I don't root for the Republicans nor the Democrats... however it seems that BOTH are at thier best (which is not saying much) when there is a split balance of power. As such, I generally refuse to vote for any candidates - at least any major party candidates. There is a part of me that hopes the Democrats lose big - they deserve to. However, my biggest fear is that the Republicans misread that as some sort of confirmation of thier theocratic, war-mongering, hate-filled agenda.

A great example of how bad the Democrats have been is going on right now - had the Republicans won the presidency, do you think currently elected Democrats would stand by quietly in the manner they have on the current president if a President McCain took the position on Civil Liberties that Obama has taken? Had that happened, I think they would be on the right side of the argument, but since it is their guy, they sit in quite support. There is great article this morning over here that highlights the presidents disappointing actions on DADT, Defense of Marriage, torture, immunity and much more (all thinks Senator/Candidate Obama claimed to stand in opposition to). The author raises a great question specifically on DADT, and DofM... would the president be taking the same position if it were gender inequality or racial inequality that the court found to be unconstitutional? He can talk-talk-talk all he wants about saying what he wants and what he believes... but when push comes to shove, it's his actions the define who he is.