This Is What Happens When Polls Are the Story

Horserace journalism strikes again.

Photo credit: Gabby Canonizado/Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: Gabby Canonizado/Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: Gabby Canonizado/Wikimedia Commons

In this, the day-after hangover after half a year of binging on polls, we are met with piece after piece that seeks to explain what went wrong in Iowa. And by what went wrong, we mean, of course, why the results did not hew to the projections of the poll-obsessed.

If we look back, there were plenty of pieces that essentially served as hedge. On the eve of the caucus, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver offered an extensive look at why Iowa is particularly difficult to predict. Politico’s Steven Shepard offered a numbered list of how the on-the-ground reality could be a mismatch to projections.

But those are pieces that speak to those interested in the dynamics and particularities of polling. Almost everywhere else, polling results were used to push a general narrative about the Iowa Caucus, the one which we are all familiar with–that Trump was set to win Iowa, according to polls.

Sure, there were caveats sprinkled about, usually paragraphs and paragraphs in, but the collective story was the same, with “polls show” all the supporting evidence that was necessary.

The problem with the Iowa results, as we see it, lies not with the pollsters, who were performing the job they were designed to perform. The problem is with the political press making polls the story. You can run all the “what went wrong” stories you like, but the cycle will repeat as long as horserace coverage is the model that continues to dominate.

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