Magazine article Nieman Reports

The Problem with Polls Isn't Technological, It's Political: As a Matter of Civic Ethics and Good Governance, It's Time to Regulate the Publication of Pre-Election Polls

Magazine article Nieman Reports

The Problem with Polls Isn't Technological, It's Political: As a Matter of Civic Ethics and Good Governance, It's Time to Regulate the Publication of Pre-Election Polls

Article excerpt

"ELECTION POLLING IS IN NEAR CRISIS," THE political scientist Cliff Zukin wrote in The New York Times in June of 2015, a year and a half before the Dewey-Defeats-Truman of Donald Trump's unexpected victory over Hillary Clinton. Zukin is a past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. Like any political scientist who'd been paying attention, Zukin had observed that election predictions have been very wrong in very many places in the last few years, from Israel to the United Kingdom.

The very science of polling has been falling apart. Plummeting response rates, down from above 90 percent in the 1930s to the single digits in the last election, have wildly skewed results. Meanwhile, meaningless, instant Internet polls, pure publicity malarkey, which are difficult for most voters to distinguish from so-called scientific polls, have proliferated, sowing confusion, and making even good polls into bad polls, by influencing their results.

Poll aggregators and data scientists promise to address these problems by abandoning conventional polling in favor of data extraction and more sophisticated electoral algorithms. But, as I reported in The New Yorker in November of 2015, the bigger and far deeper problem with polls isn't technological: It's political.

Election prediction isn't really a field of political science; it began as, and remains, a form of journalism. George Gallup, who founded the field in 1935, was a professor of journalism, and his American Institute for Public Opinion Research was founded as the Editors' Research Bureau; both provided services to newspapers.

The idea of publishing election predictions months before an election, and asserting that the results were "scientific," seemed to many people so obviously injurious to the democratic progress that Congress has several times conducted investigations into the polling industry, as has the Social Science Research Council. …

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