There’s an excellent essay in the February 2022 Harper’s that delves deeply and with exquisite humor into the history and subject of polling.
“Sample Truths,” written by Harper’s editor, Christopher Beha, discusses political and opinion polling. This is important to me because, although I don’t call myself an addict of polls, I do hook onto them frequently…actually, often, very often…during political campaigns.
Beha hits the mark in his first paragraph:
One of the few clear goods to have emerged from the social and political turmoil of the past decade is a collapse of faith in public opinion polls.
I wouldn’t call my regard for polling “faith;” not exactly. I have liked Nate Silver’s polling analyses and, okay, maybe I clung to some of his numbers with a sort of desperation. But these have been crazy times and anything I can get that seems sane, rational and derived from semi-hard numbers rather than mythology acts as a tranquilizer upon my raggedy vittles.
The fact is, though, I am not one of those people whose opinion enters those poll numbers. I’ve never been polled, never had the chance to say to a polling question, “I can’t answer that with a ‘yes’ or ‘no.'”
So, here are some things Beha points out. After the final numbers in the New Jersey gubernatorial race basically spat on pollsters…
The…race led the director of Jersey’s own Monmouth University Polling Institute–one of the nation’s most widely respected surveyors–to apologize. “The growing perception that polling is broken cannot be easily dismissed,” Patrick Murray wrote in an op-ed for the Newark Star-Ledger. Similarly searching statements were heard after the 2012, 2016 and 2020 elections, but they were generally followed by a promise to fix the problem. Murray was more dramatic: “If we cannot be certain that these polling misses are anomalies,” he wrote, “then we have a responsibility to consider whether releasing horse race numbers in close proximity to an election is making a positive or negative contribution to the political discourse.”
Murray deserves credit for considering the possibility that we “rethink the value” of political polling. Granted, he’s not suggesting that Monmouth get out of the business entirely, only that it give up the horse race to concentrate on public-interest, or “issues,” surveys, a move that the biggest names (Gallop and Pew Research Center) have already made. But it’s not at all clear that the growing skepticism about this work can be confined to the matter of elections. It’s time to consider a world without polls.
Oooh. I get this but now am considering why polls are bad for us. Do people look at polls and, based on those opinions of other people, change their own opinions? Are polls a sort of hot tub into which everyone jumps because everyone else is in it?
The ubiquity of opinion polling is one of those features of modern life that seem natural and even inevitable until we examine them closely, at which point they prove to be frankly bizarre. What would be lost if we no longer knew (or pretended to know) how many of our fellow citizens “approved” of the president on any given day? I’m not entirely sure on any given day whether I approve of the president, and it hardly seems worth my time to figure it out.
Beha lays out one putative defense of polling: …”it makes elected officials more responsive to citizens by communicating the will of the people.” He reviews the short history of that defense and slams it: “Only someone with no principles would take the public’s temperature before making a policy decision.”
But does anyone think that our government has become more responsive to its citizens? Less partisan or ideological? In practice, of course, we want politicians to follow the lead of the majority only when we ourselves are in it. A political who bucks popular opinion to do something we agree with is courageous. All of which suggests we could do without the polls themselves.
Frequently citing the 1998 book, Seeing Like A State, by Yale professor James C. Scott, Beha relates the fascinating history of polling, pollsters and its evolution:”[H]ow odd it is to record people’s opinions on complex matters by asking them to choose among prefabricated options.”
Oh, I could quote the whole brilliant thing. Instead, I suggest you pick up this edition of Harper’s and read the thought-provoking piece of deeply intelligent journalism. It’s likely to change your thinking about polling more than polling will.
Meanwhile, I am rigorously eschewing looking at polls for the November elections, since I realize devotion to polls indicates a childish inability to postpone gratification. I’m ready to be a grown-up, or at least try to be. If I’ve done it with football, I must be able to do it with elections.