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January 12, 2016

Polls are in the news – they have raised up Donald Trump – and questions have renewed about their value to a democracy. Poll proliferation has gone national this election cycle. Recently Harvard historian Jill LePore scrutinized the industry in her New Yorker piece, Politics and the New Machine: What the turn from polls to data science means for democracy.

Professor LePore notes that polls are “wielding greater influence over American elections than ever” and cites the absurdity of polls being used to select which Republican candidates would appear in the debates. As I’ve noted before, the poll method was apparently not a fiat of the party.  GOP Chair Reince Priebus discussed the problem of choosing which candidates to allow on stage in a May interview with the New York Times: ''Obviously, our media partners are going to have a big say in the process, as well as our party.'' In fact, to avoid being blamed by any disappointed candidate, the party delegated the selection method to its “media partners.” What might having a media partner make the decisions entail? Professor LePore offers an example: “[A]fter Carly Fiorina’s campaign complained that the method was unfair CNN changed its formula. The decision had very little to do with American democracy or social science. It had to do with the practice of American journalism. It would make better television if Fiorina was on the same stage as Trump, since he’d made comments about her appearance.”

According to Professor LePore, George Gallup once remarked of horse race polling that “While such forecasts provide an interesting and legitimate activity, they probably serve no great social purpose.” HuffPost Pollster was recently “tracking 223 polls from 33 pollsters” conducting surveys of the “National Republican Primary.” These 223 polls share the flaw that there is no National Republican Primary. They do however serve as marketing tools for media sponsors and pollsters and provide pseudo-news for media to create and then report upon. But they “serve no great social purpose.”

Professor LePore writes that one early scholarly critic of polling, Herbert Blumer, asserted that public opinion does not exist absent measurement, since opinions are formed by discussion and debate among the members of a society. I think that notion might have appealed to the late Professor Wilson Carey McWilliams, who thought democracy worked best when groups of citizens, working through guiding intermediaries such as unions, gave dignity to the citizen who would speak and listen.

Political Scientist Lindsay Rogers argued that polls are a constitutional atrocity, in that our elected officials are to represent us and not sway to each gust of public opinion. We often see this in the changing positions of politicians who have “evolved” on issues, unfailingly in the direction of maximum electoral convenience. President Bill Clinton once changed his summer vacation destination because Martha’s Vineyard did not poll well.

Professor LePore notes that critics have pointed out that poll respondents often know little or nothing about the topics they are asked about. This was the case when the Boston Globe polled Massachusetts residents about Governor Charlie Baker’s position on accepting Syrian refugees, even though the Globe Editorial Board itself was confused about his position. Polls also produce some baffling results, as this lede from an April 27, 2015 Globe story suggests: “Although nearly a third of Massachusetts residents say they support the death penalty for egregious crimes, less than 20 percent believe Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be put to death.”  

Horse race polls are becoming the public face of social science research. Professor LePore reports that even social scientists who have been fans of the polling industry are now alarmed. The industry itself is undergoing significant and not well understood change, as Fivethirtyeight’s Harry Enten writes in The Future of Polling May Depend on Donald Trump’s Fate.

Does Donald Trump exist without polls? Given how often he speaks of them, even he may not be sure. Not a single governor, senator, or congressman has endorsed Trump and most who care about the Republican Party fear he’d be a disaster. Jeb Bush recently complained that all the attention going to Trump is a lost opportunity for the candidates to set out their foreign policy positions.

Enjoy Professor LePore’s article as we digest the next 233 polls of a non-existent event.

polling, Jill Lepore

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