The Polling Crisis Is a Catastrophe for American DemocracyBreaking News
tags: public opinion, polling, 2020 Election
Even with the results of the presidential contest still out, there’s a clear loser in this election: polling.
Surveys badly missed the results, predicting an easy win for former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic pickup in the Senate, and gains for the party in the House. Instead, the presidential election is still too close to call, Republicans seem poised to hold the Senate, and the Democratic edge in the House is likely to shrink.
This is a disaster for the polling industry and for media outlets and analysts that package and interpret the polls for public consumption, such as FiveThirtyEight, The New York Times’ Upshot, and The Economist’s election unit. They now face serious existential questions. But the greatest problem posed by the polling crisis is not in the presidential election, where the snapshots provided by polling are ultimately measured against an actual tally of votes: As the political cliché goes, the only poll that matters is on Election Day. The real catastrophe is that the failure of the polls leaves Americans with no reliable way to understand what we as a people think outside of elections—which in turn threatens our ability to make choices, or to cohere as a nation.
The current poll-industrial complex traces its roots to the 1930s, when George Gallup created it. But in the past few decades, it has become truly dominant within the realms of politics and policy. President Bill Clinton was notoriously fond of using poll data to guide political decisions, but the real efflorescence came with Nate Silver’s creation of FiveThirtyEight. Silver founded the site in 2007, out of frustration with the punditry he heard on TV, which he believed either misread public-opinion polls or ignored them entirely.
Silver predicted Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 Democratic primary, then in the general election, and again in 2012, and founded a movement. His critique, which fit with the coolly technocratic impulses of the Obama years, also carried the day. Silver and his cohort felt that reporters were botching horse-race coverage because they relied too heavily on anecdotes, many of which were not representative, either because reporters were too cloistered or because they chose incorrectly.
Silver didn’t want reporters to stop going into the field; he just wanted them to contextualize what they heard. “The impulse maybe isn’t bad,” he told me last year. “But, you know, polls are also a way of talking to voters.” He hoped, however, that by combining the polls into averages and creating models of the electorate, he might free up reporters to write other stories. Instead, horse-race journalism simply became more sophisticated and poll-obsessed, and in the process, it became even more central to political coverage—now enhanced by the sheen of quantitative rigor.
The 2016 election was a shock to this new regime. Polls and poll analysts expected a Hillary Clinton victory, and instead Donald Trump won. Amid a popular backlash, the poll clique—pollsters and analysts alike—defended their results and blamed the public for not understanding polling or probabilities. They pointed out that the popular vote had closely tracked national polling on Clinton versus Trump, and while state polls were very consequentially wrong, many were not wrong by all that much.