There is little doubt that the 2016 presidential outcome has inflicted some damage on the credibility of political opinion polling. So much so, W. Joseph Campbell recently published an entire book about skepticism and polling failures in presidential elections. It’s probably a good time to remind folks that the history of polling failure is not exactly scant. After all, it’s at least enough to fill a book. (Polls can indeed be right too and I’ll get to that further down below.)
One of those chapters deals with media skepticism over polls and the propensity by reporters and columnists to poke fun at public opinion polling. This certainly differs more from today, where polls are much more apt to be taken as gospel by an overwhelming majority of the media. Some of this may be for ideological reasons too. It’s no secret that the vast majority of the media have been quite aggressive in their push to drive this president from office.
I bring all this up now because we have quite a bit of the media who seem excessively attached to reporting the polls and ignoring other indicators that could be a positive sign for Trump, such as voter enthusiasm, crowd sizes, and spontaneous rallies, whether they be automobile or boat parades. Crowd sizes aren’t everything of course, as former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul learned in his unsuccessful attempts to win the nomination in 2008 and 2012. Paul drew massive crowds but they didn’t translate well into that many votes in the primaries. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean had some pretty big crowds too before his campaign collapsed soon after the Iowa Caucuses in 2004. Voter enthusiasm may not be as high for former vice president Joe Biden but it’s undeniable there are a lot of Americans who want Trump out, whether they have much affinity for Biden or not.
At any rate, the media used to be much more questioning or dismissive of polls. Campbell’s book “Lost in Gallup: Polling failure in U.S. Presidential Elections” highlights a good deal of the skepticism:
James Reston of the New York Times argued that “the more the pollsters fail, the more the democratic process is likely to succeed.” If pre-election polls “were a sure bet,” he reasoned, “who would vote?” (1988)
The ornery Mike Royko, who was perhaps Chicago’s most engaging and entertaining newspaper columnist, delighted in his contempt for the polls. The pollster, he wrote, was “a hired brain-picker trying to figure out what your personal fears, hopes or prejudices are, so that he can advise politicians how to more skillfully lie to you.” (1992)
“Without these polls, we would never know what the cattle feel like.”—Russell Baker, New York Times humor columnist, 1988.
“I should be happy if all the polls turned out to be wrong.”—Walter Lippman, 1936.
“The political polls are everywhere — but do they really mean anything?” —Susan Aschoff, 2000.
There are a lot more examples in Campbell’s book and of course, it could be true that the polls are correct. They have been very close and fairly accurate before.
I’ve seen some on the right try to dismiss the polls saying they are making the exact same mistakes as they did in 2016. This isn’t quite true and the national polls then were only off by a little more than a percentage point in the last presidential election. Clinton easily won the national vote by running her numbers up in California yet losing critical swing states where polls did break down in 2016. Yet, pollsters are trying to account for that this year by overweighting things like the non-college-educated who were undersampled in the Rust Belt in 2016. Adjustments to be more accurate are continually being made and still, there are instances of failure.
However, the point is that it’s okay to doubt or be skeptical of polling. In fact, the media used to be some of the biggest skeptics.