By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It’s a phenomenon professor Vavreck calls “incentive incompatibility.” The candidates, the public and the media all want different things. USA Todayand CNN are trying to sell their products. Candidates are looking for sympathetic coverage. And voters need information. “And those things often don’t line up.”
So when USA Todayrushes to a headline that says “BUSH CLEAR LEADER IN POLL” and declares a definitive Bush “surge,” the voter is getting shortchanged.
As a remedy, Ruy Teixeira thinks that poll reporting should have more information, with full disclosure of other polls, and perhaps also provide the reader with additional detail about sample compositions, weighting and other methodologies.
Newport agrees, saying it wouldn’t be hard to add a sentence or two explaining the context of a particular poll or the nuance of its results. “The burden is on journalists,” he says. “They should be having the discussion we’re having.”
Especially when the race looks like it will be another squeaker. Recall that in 2000, the vote in Florida — and several other states — was a statistical tie. These kinds of unprecedented, razor-thin margins are another reason to tread lightly with poll information. When the country becomes so evenly polarized in many places, and public opinion migrates inside the tolerance of statistical sampling, even the best poll is not precise enough to have much predictive power.
This is what Karl Sigman, a professor of applied mathematics at Columbia University, discovered in 2000. He and a colleague input state-by-state poll data into a computer simulation that assigned probabilities for each candidate to win the electoral college. Sigman’s model was an innovative method for presidential forecasting, and it came closer than estimates by most of the pundits or political “professionals.”
But even with polling figures released the day before the election, the model was slightly off. Ultimately, what 2000 reminded us about is that polls are not like taking samples of bacteria in a lake; they are an attempt to gauge human intentions, which are messy and resist quantification. That basic ambiguity made it impossible to capture the prospect that, at that late date, some people would still change their minds. Or not vote when they said they would to pollsters. Or come out in unexpected force in one state but not another. In 1984, this wouldn’t have mattered; no last-minute budges would have helped Mondale overcome a 20-point deficit. But in 2000, and probably again this year, the shift that tips the scales may not be easily detectable by polls.
That leaves voters, candidates and the media in the strange situation of poring over an endless series of numbers with only tentative analytical value. And almost no democratic value, since the constant horserace bulletins divert attention from substantive reporting about the actual issues at stake.
This is what Canada realized in the early ’90s, when it prohibited poll reports in the run-up to federal elections. This year, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation decided not to commission any polls, citing the detriment of pure horserace coverage. A legislative polling ban would never work in the United States — Canada’s experiment was in fact short-lived, as its Supreme Court overturned the law on the grounds that it restricted freedom of expression, which is precisely what would happen here — and it’s hard to imagine any of our news organizations following in the brave footsteps of the CBC. But maybe we voters can create our own, self-imposed collective ban. Let us avert our eyes from the polls and shun the temptations of numerology. No more playing obsessively with the L.A. Times interactive electoral map. It just might be that if you get out the vote, the polls won’t matter.