Poll coverage drives us crazy. Every day that a poll comes out, which is often every day, these days, it becomes a story. So many numbers, so much data, so much ultimately useless information. It’s as if reporters forget everything they know about polls in the space it takes to write a story about a poll that treats the poll like the secret key to the future of the elections.
In a post for the Monkey Cage blog, John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, explains exactly what is wrong with the poll-reporting complex.
First, he lays out what we should know, and which we probably do:
We know from presidential general elections that polling this early is not correlated with outcomes in November. We know from presidential primary elections that poll surges are often ephemeral, in part because they reflect how the media covers primary candidates.
Assuming we know this, then, why does the “a poll has found” genre proliferate like so many weeds?
“My sense is that the lessons from political science research and the history of previous campaigns just haven’t sunk in,” writes Sides. But it’s his next line that really captures the problem: “No one wants to start a piece about a campaign by saying, ‘A new poll is out today, but history shows that it tells us little about who will actually win the nomination/election.'”
But for every argument, there’s a counterargument from someone who really loves a horse race. Sides addresses the counterarguments, unlocking straightjacketed thinking about how to look at polls. Yes, they are important for the upcoming debates, but debate organizers should find another way. Yes, you shouldn’t start taking polls seriously the week before elections, but there shouldn’t be so many polls now in the first place, and they can focus on things other than who would beat whom 470 days before the big day.
There are also lots of reasons to report on polls beyond the horse race — such as figuring out the national mood and the public’s stances on key issues. See, for example, Blake on immigration or the Islamic State. Or we can report on polls of more specialized populations, like GOP activists, whose views may be more important in the primary.
So my point isn’t that we shouldn’t cover pre-election polls 15 months away from the election, it’s more that we can cover them better — in ways that truly reflect their weaknesses and strengths. But that would still require a significant shift in news coverage.
There’s another way, people. There’s another way.