The Truth Behind Political Polls

By: Charlotte Laryssa Bonacquisti

How is a candidate doing in the race? Let’s ask the polls. How do we know if the polls are accurate? The truth is, we don’t.

After almost two weeks studying the Iowa caucuses, I realized most Iowans do not choose a candidate until right before the caucuses. If this is true, the polls are far from concrete. They change as the people polled hear from new candidates and gain new perspectives.

An Iowan couple I met at a Marco Rubio event confirmed my suspicion: polls mean absolutely nothing. The couple said when people call and ask whom they are voting for, they often tell the pollster a different candidate each time.

Another man said he does not want people to know his choice of candidate, especially when he is not 100 percent sure himself.

Polling is a guessing game. The way I understand it, a professional pollster selects a group of people from the general population that seems representative. Does this group of people provide an accurate representation of the population? Well, we only know when we find out the results.

What polling does successfully, however, is boost the image of certain candidates to a level where they can receive more funding, support, and media coverage. Every member of the media wants to focus their resources on candidates who are doing well.

According to Cliff Zukin of The New York Times, polls are less reliable for two main reasons: the growth of cellphones and the decline of people willing to participate in polls. I don’t know about you, but I cannot remember the last time I was asked to participate in a political poll.

Zukin mentions that he began doing telephone surveys in the 1970s, and at that time, it was acceptable to get an 80 percent response rate. By 1997, the accepted response rate was 36 percent. That’s a big difference.

Let me get this straight: we are accepting and fighting over polls that calculate marginally more than one-fourth of the people supposedly represented. As a politically motivated adult, I want to know what is happening in politics; however, even though the wait is difficult, I would rather learn to be patient than get inaccurate results. Polls can change political races in ways that can negatively impact candidates who are otherwise doing well.

Despite polls’ lack of reliability, people still want them. All political junkies and voters want to know how their candidate is doing in comparison to others. Although candidates want to be on top in the end, it can be a curse to reach first place early in major polls and stay there for extended periods of time.

Why? The candidate who has the misfortune of topping the polls is also saddled with significant pressure. Expectations transform into the idea that this candidate is now “the one,” and it puts him or her in the position to fail miserably. Even if the candidate wins, the media now focuses on the percentage points between first and second place.

Historically speaking, it is more beneficial to rise up from a place of near invisibility and finish in second place than to be number one and “fail expectations.” The underdogs who outperform expectations obtain more media exposure than candidates who are expected to do well but do not reach high enough.

In the 1980 Iowa Caucus, Ronald Reagan was labeled the “man to beat”; when George Bush finished on top, he surprised everyone and became the central focus of the ensuing media circus. The story told by the media overlooked the mere 2 percentage points between Bush and Reagan. Instead, Reagan received negative media attention, while Bush was raised up as the great, unexpected victor.

The surprise factor makes the political game fun. Predicting the end result without a shadow of a doubt is impossible because there are always game changers and trick plays.

Lack of participation in the voting process is the second factor mentioned responsible for affecting the accuracy of polls. The reasons behind why people do not vote are often irrelevant in comparison to the impact of their absence on results. The real question is: how does participation relate to polls? Many people who participate in polls do not end up voting. It also works the other way; people who vote do not always get polled. It’s impossible to determine who will vote and who will not, so pollsters are left with a large blind spot.

Lastly, polling costs a significant amount of money. Media organizations often lack the resources to provide for professional polling, so they work with what they have. This means the polls we see are the results of organizations pooling resources to provide the most accurate poll possible.

My goal is not to throw pollsters under the bus. Often they do not even know the accuracy of their own research. Polls give politically active voters and media members the excitement they need to continue supporting or reporting on candidates. They also create competition between candidates that rewards the winners with media attention and sponsors.

Keep watching the polls and enjoy the political game. It’s fun! Just remember, there is no foolproof way to accurately poll candidates, so try not to take every poll to heart. The end result might surprise you.