When your friendly neighborhood pundit opens by citing a minor point surge, you’d be better informed on the state of America today by watching Honey Boo Boo and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The media obsession with reporting on polls is a waste of time. Any given poll on any given day is not a useful measure of the state of American public opinion.
Long term tracking (by one organization, anyway) has shown the candidates within three points of each other on 89 of the past 100 days. A long-term compilation of daily polling data from a single source in this election looks like a seismograph. This alone should be enough to deter us from relying on single-day, single-source polling. Numbers on any given day, taken in a vacuum, are irrelevant and have no bearing on the ultimate outcome, a reality to which the media seems oblivious.
“Voters base their decisions on the substantive issues in the world around them,” Scott Rasmussen of Rasmussen Reports said in a commentary published Friday. “The Political Class is distracted by superficial imagery, an obsession with the game of politics and the sound of their own voices.”
The media — in which I include myself, necessarily, to avoid hypocrisy — rely heavily on inconsistent and variable polling data to make their points, because when we support them with numbers and statistics, we sound smart and informed. Knowledge is power. If you sound like you know what you’re talking about, people will listen to you. We cite polls to demonstrate, ultimately, that our predictions and explanations are correct. It’s validating, but it’s also easy to play the system. Have a point you want to make? Find a poll whose data supports your position.
Is Obama winning? ABC News/Washington Post and JZ Analytics/Newsmax both have Obama up. A Romney guy or gal? Here’s your poll, from UPI/CVOTER with a 3-point lead. (All polls are over roughly the same time period.) What about Gary Johnson? One poll had him at 10% in Ohio, though he’s also been reported around 4% in the state, and might be around 4% nationally—if he were ever included in the polls, that is.
Then, of course, which polls are we talking about? Obama vs. Romney? Obama favorability? Romney favorability? Single issues, like job approval? Foreign policy? Health care? What about with independents? In specific states? Registered voters? Likely voters? New York Times or Fox News?
I do this kind of poll-mining all the time because I want to prove I am making an accurate argument about a large segment of the population. An agreeable poll gives me the false confidence I need to place non-monetary bets on the outcome of a difficult-to-predict event. Sadly, polls are inherently inaccurate: sample demographics vary; polling questions are biased; polling questions might be confusing; people might lie; people will change their minds. But we ignore these downfalls because in punditry, we have to be right.
Based on media’s self-serving treatment of polls — quoting the one that serves your purpose — it becomes clear they are a crutch for dealing with our denial about the truth of American politics. As long as you read the numbers right, everything is going your way. But the obsession needs to stop: polls aren’t news. They semi-reflect reactions to current events. On the whole long-term polling trends can help campaigns choose where to spend their money. Otherwise, simply being able to say who is ahead this morning is inconsequential and not inherently newsworthy.
Daily numbers don’t last. Their relevance ceases as soon as the elections are over; nay, their relevance ceases as soon as they are superseded by a new iteration.
So fear not, fellow Americans frustrated by uncertainty regarding who is likely to be unlikely to possibly maybe win what may or may not be a swing state: in three weeks, this hell will be over and we can begin our griping about the failures of the Electoral College.