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December 28, 2015

On Saturday in “Poll numbers are up—and up and up…” the Boston Globe’s Matt Viser took note of a 2015 phenomenon – “saturation polling,” a huge shift upward in the number of polls of the presidential race being published by media outlets. We’ve seen this in Massachusetts. There are two reasons for poll proliferation. First, political polls are marketing tools for media, polling firms, and universities. Second, they are a source of pseudo-news that holds some attraction for an uninterested public.

Mr. Viser writes that “the trend toward saturation polling shows little sign of abating, with online polls now cheaper than ever and polling firms and universities competing to satisfy an insatiable media appetite for the latest upticks and downturns, the trends in the minute-by-minute drama of the contest.”

Media outlets love to market their own polls – the CNN poll, the New York Times poll, the Wall Street JournalNBC News Poll, etc. – because that enhances the brand. Viser rightly includes “polling firms and universities” as among those hungry for a piece of the marketing pie. A pollster or university wants to be associated with a news outlet – the Boston Herald/Franklin Pierce College Poll for instance – but if they have no media partner they just poll and release their results anyway, knowing that that the “insatiable media” will publish their results and brand.

Political polls are pseudo-news because they are not events happening – a debate for instance – but news manufactured by the news outlets themselves so they will have something to report on. Very little of anything new happens on the campaign trail, strive as the candidates do to create their own daily pseudo-news. Worse, and as a political scientist it pains me to say this, the general public is not very interested in politics. So in the routine day the media would be left to report on uninteresting happenings to an uninterested public. That does not sell advertising space or commercials.

Trump is at 41%! Trump is at 42%! Darth Vader would beat Trump! Thirty percent of Republican voters favor bombing the mythical Disney kingdom of Agrabah! These recent poll results are related. Americans know very little about politics.

In the Globe story, one pollster says there are “days where there’s 10, 20, 30 polls that come out.” Is our democracy enhanced by 136 polls (thus far in 2015) in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina? Do we need them? Why do we have them?

The answers are No. No. And we have them to help sell product.

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