Is This the End of Polling?

Pollsters everywhere keep getting it wrong.

President Donald J. Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson continue to talk at the conclusion of their working breakfast meeting Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019, at Hotel du Palais Biarritz in Biarritz, France, site of the G7 Summit. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

As the British Labour Party continues to lick its wounds and begins to slowly recover after the sound political thrashing dealt them by Boris Johnson and his Tories, some progressive liberal party activists are defending themselves by reminding the public that Labour’s ideas poll very well.

Yeah, so?

A great many ideas may poll well, but you can also get almost any idea to be said to “poll well” if the perspective and wording are tweaked by a clever enough marketer.

That’s right; marketer. The organizations that conduct most public polling, and the pollsters who design and administer polls, enjoy a veneer of scientific respectability they hardly deserve.

Most pollsters are less bespectacled actuarial wonk and more slick snake-oil salesman meets underground bookie. An organization hires a pollster to sort of reverse-engineer sell an ad concept. As in, “I need this poll to agree with me and/or show I’m right. And, go.”

Political organizations in need of polling data, for instance, do not require that data to determine the correct course of political action. On the contrary; the correct course of action has already been decided and a poll is needed to justify it and increase public support.

It works, or politicians wouldn’t do it.

If a poll showed all your friends jumping off a cliff, would you jump off too? Thing is, you might. “Everyone else is doing it. You don’t want to be left out, do you?” still works as well as it ever did, on about as many people.

Getting a whopping number out of a poll that says 90% of Americans support your idea goes a long way towards convincing the unconvinced. The wisdom of crowds convinces many to go with the flow.

Take Briton’s Labor Party: “Do you think low-income families should have free access to internet broadband?” is an extremely easy idea to poll for a “Yes”.

Sure, why not. Of course most people would answer- in a poll with no real repercussions whatsoever- that “Yes, low-income people should have free access to the internet. Everyone needs access to the internet.”

But change that question into “Would you support a .5 cent national tax increase in order to ensure low-income people have access to the internet?” and the answers change drastically and diametrically.

Far fewer people might feel comfortable saying “Yes” on free internet to low-income households when it is made clear to them that taxpayers will have to pay more in taxes for this to happen.

Because half a cent isn’t that much, but the poor certainly need a great deal more than free internet access, don’t they? They need housing, food, child care, health care, education. Plus, they need the same drivable roads, potable water, affordable energy, sound infrastructure, and safe neighborhoods as everyone else.

It isn’t a question of what the average tax-payer would like to do for the less fortunate of society. It is a question of how much can feasibly be done without the kind of undue burden on the tax base that results in an erosion of same to places with tax-codes friendlier to those who pay them than those who don’t.

Most taxpayers feel they are paying enough in taxes already.

Candy-coating and concealing these negatives, like the fact that new social net programs will result in new taxes, is part of polling. A cleverly worded polling question can get respondents to give almost any response for which pollsters are going. Alternately, the same question, worded different ways, can be both a yes and a no for the same person on the same questionnaire.

Just ask any local government that has tried to pass even the smallest tax increase for something that everyone in the community agrees is a great idea. Let’s say, the measure is hiring new teachers for a computer science curriculum. Everyone agrees: It’s a great idea; community children need these programs; such programs are vital to the success of every child who passes through the school.

And yet, on Election Day, the parents of those same students who would benefit the most vote “No” on the ballot measure- if they bother voting at all.

For the reformers in society, this is, of course, frustrating. Some call it the “Not in My Backyard” attitude. Yes, we want this; but we want someone else to pay for it. Yes, we need a new landfill; always in someone else’s back yard.

Politicians like Jeremy Corbyn need to spend less time convincing everyone that everyone already agrees with their ideas and more time actually convincing people to agree with his ideas.

What do most of us want to do? For the homeless, for hungry kids, those in poverty in America, those barely hanging on; everything.

What can we realistically do? It is this logistical question that separates the dreamers from the doers. By all means, shoot for the stars. But better make it the stars, at least at first, rather than the furtherest unknown reaches of the universe.

Briton’s Labour Party erred in that it made too many pie-in-the-sky promises. Worse, it made promises to give the public everything it claimed to want. Poll after poll favored socialist programs, government controlled utilities, higher taxes on the wealthy.

But when it came time to do more than deign to answer a polling question, Britons balked. When they had the opportunity to elect a government that actually pledged to do those things, polling fell apart.

Of course it did. The polls told the pollsters exactly what they wanted to hear, as polls so often- and not coincidently- do. The truth in reality, not some posited future in a poll, was far different, as Labour learned to its cost.

Reliance on polls has always been half-baked anyway. Polls don’t represent a true sample of the population. Even the best polls are a sample of people willing to be polled, no more.

The group of people who are willing to be polled includes a disproportionate number of people who have strong feelings on the subject, pro or con. This skews the results considerably.

The efficacy of polling has also been negatively influenced by the end of the land-line, a certain swath of the public’s mistrust of the media outlets that conduct polls, and a dozen other reasons.

Not least of these reasons is that polling has become more a ploy of the marketer designing a winning ad concept than a tool of the census-taker determined to take the public’s temperature on various social issues without any agenda beyond fact-finding.

Abandon all hope, ye who still believe polling data as we head into 2020; hope you like surprises.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

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