Politics and the New Machine

tags: politics, election 2016, polls, Voting

Jill Lepore, a staff writer, has been contributing to The New Yorker since 2005.

I am who I am,” Donald J. Trump said in August, on the eve of this season’s first G.O.P. Presidential debate, and what he meant by that was this: “I don’t have a pollster.” The word “pollster,” when it was coined, was meant as a slur, like “huckster.” That’s the way Trump uses it. Other candidates have pollsters: “They pay these guys two hundred thousand dollars a month to tell them, ‘Don’t say this, don’t say that.’ ” Trump has none: “No one tells me what to say.”

Every election is a morality play. The Candidate tries to speak to the People but is thwarted by Negative Campaigning, vilified by a Biased Media, and haunted by a War Record. I am who I am, the Candidate says, and my Opponents are flunkies. Trump makes this claim with unrivalled swagger, but citing his campaign’s lack of a pollster as proof of his character, while fascinating, is utterly disingenuous. The Path to Office is long. To reach the Land of Caucuses and Primaries, the Candidate must first cross the Sea of Polls. Trump is a creature of that sea.

Lately, the Sea of Polls is deeper than ever before, and darker. From the late nineteen-nineties to 2012, twelve hundred polling organizations conducted nearly thirty-seven thousand polls by making more than three billion phone calls. Most Americans refused to speak to them. This skewed results. Mitt Romney’s pollsters believed, even on the morning of the election, that Romney would win. A 2013 study—a poll—found that three out of four Americans suspect polls of bias. Presumably, there was far greater distrust among the people who refused to take the survey.

The modern public-opinion poll has been around since the Great Depression, when the response rate—the number of people who take a survey as a percentage of those who were asked—was more than ninety. The participation rate—the number of people who take a survey as a percentage of the population—is far lower. Election pollsters sample only a minuscule portion of the electorate, not uncommonly something on the order of a couple of thousand people out of the more than two hundred million Americans who are eligible to vote. The promise of this work is that the sample is exquisitely representative. But the lower the response rate the harder and more expensive it becomes to realize that promise, which requires both calling many more people and trying to correct for “non-response bias” by giving greater weight to the answers of people from demographic groups that are less likely to respond. Pollster.com’s Mark Blumenthal has recalled how, in the nineteen-eighties, when the response rate at the firm where he was working had fallen to about sixty per cent, people in his office said, “What will happen when it’s only twenty? We won’t be able to be in business!” A typical response rate is now in the single digits.

Meanwhile, polls are wielding greater influence over American elections than ever. In May, Fox News announced that, in order to participate in its first prime-time debate, hosted jointly with Facebook, Republican candidates had to “place in the top ten of an average of the five most recent national polls.” Where the candidates stood on the debate stage would also be determined by their polling numbers. (Ranking in the polls had earlier been used to exclude third-party candidates.) Scott Keeter, Pew’s director of survey research, is among the many public-opinion experts who found Fox News’s decision insupportable. “I just don’t think polling is really up to the task of deciding the field for the headliner debate,” Keeter told me. Bill McInturff doesn’t think so, either. McInturff is a co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, the leading Republican polling organization; with its Democratic counterpart, Hart Research Associates, he conducts the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. “I didn’t think my job was to design polling so that Fox could pick people for a debate,” McInturff told me. Really, it’s not possible to design a poll to do that. ...

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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