William Katz:  Urgent Agenda

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ABOUT THOSE POLLS.  Are you guilty?  I am.  We only whisper it, but we know we're currently suffering from Pollitis, a serious disease of the brain that erupts every election season.  It is not curable.  We look at those polls every day, as if they can actually predict the future. 

Oh yes, we're familiar with the usual cautions.  In 1936 the Literary Digest predicted, on the basis of a poll, that Alf Landon would be elected president of the United States, defeating the incumbent, Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Uh, it didn't quite turn out that way.  But that polling catastrophe launched the age of the "scientific" poll, presumably more accurate than the Digest's failed effort.  New techniques were developed.  New personalities appeared, with names like Gallup, Roper, and Samuel Lubell, who was one of my professors.  And yes, polling did become more accurate.

But how accurate?  It is widely accepted that 2020, just two years ago, was a disastrous year for polling.  Many pollsters were so far off that some journalists suggested that the worst of them simply withdraw from the field and never bother us again.  And it was noticed that the pre-election polls that were so inaccurate were almost all inaccurate in the same direction – they overcounted the Democratic vote.  Was there some scheme involved?  Were some pollsters trying to tip the scale?

In the last four or five days we have seen, once again, polling that suggests that a number of races are in the bag for the Dems.  A Republican wave?  What Republican wave?

And so a further word of caution is required.  Distinguished political reporter Rowan Scarborough, of the Washington Times, clarifies the picture for us.   

The polls for Republicans in 2020 were awful. Awfully wrong.
So awful that the normally sedate Pew Research Center unleashed a post-election scolding to the polling triumvirate of media/colleges/consultants who consistently undercounted GOP chances. 

“It’s clear that national and many state estimates were not just off, but off in the same direction: They favored the Democratic candidate,” Pew said in a post-Nov. 3 analysis. 
The error gap is important, Republicans say because bloated Democratic poll numbers can tamp down fundraising and influence some voters to give up — before even voting. It is what Democrats would call “voter suppression.”

Seven weeks away from the Nov. 8 midterms, conservative backbiting has surfaced as they see the “generic congressional” poll in which voters are asked which party they will back tilt away from Republicans.

YouGov just posted numbers that show the Democrats are up 6 points. But Republicans would point out that in 2020, the same firm had the Democrats up a whopping 10 points near Election Day. Democrats actually lost 14 House seats and its post-election spread was three, not 10, or just about a tie, according to data posted by RealClearPolitics.com.

YouGov’s final 2020 presidential poll had Joseph R. Biden winning the popular vote by 10, a giant landslide. He beat then-President Donald Trump by 4.5%. 

Afterward, noted GOP pollster Frank Luntz called on colleagues to quit, referring to mistakes in 2016 too. 

“I think what is happening is accountability in action,” Mr. Luntz said on Fox News’s “Media Buzz.” “And if you got it wrong this time, you got it wrong twice in a row, you shouldn’t be working in the business. There are other things you can do. You can sell real estate. You can sell stocks.”

Pollsters gave Mr. Trump virtually no chance of gaining the magic 270 electoral votes in 2016. He garnered 306, winning in the “blue wall” states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

I’ve spoken to conservative-aligned polling companies with generally better records than the big guys. They say the major mistake is not to “weight” the curated sample of, say, 900 voters. Weighting means to increase or decrease the share of certain demographics, such as white or Black if the final sample is out of whack with recent election history.

Here is some history: In 2020, Quinnipiac University’s final polls had Mr. Trump losing Florida, 47-42. He won by 3.3%. Quinnipiac foresaw Mr. Trump beaten in Ohio 47-43. He won Ohio by 8.2 points. Nationally, it said Mr. Biden would win by 11 points.

CNBC polls had Mr. Biden winning Florida and North Carolina, where he lost, and saw an 8-point win for him in Wisconsin, where he squeaked a win by 0.7. One major poll said Mr. Biden would win Wisconsin by 17 points.

None of 14 polls found Maine Sen. Susan Collins in the lead. Some predicted a substantial defeat. She had a substantial win — by 9 points.

“After this election, I think the polling industry needs to take a hard look at what it does,” Ms. Collins told Fox News.

COMMENT:  Please read the whole thing.  This is one of the best examples of political reporting that I've seen recently.  We'll know in just over six weeks whether history has repeated itself this year, or whether polling has improved.  My hope is that we'll be smiling.  Smiling is good.

September 28, 2022