Presidential Poll Dancing


Pollsters used to get it wrong once in a great while, as when they missed Harry Truman’s victory. Now they get it wrong a lot, and it matters.

There are a lot of things wrong with the horse-race meme as it is applied to presidential politics. (“Coming around the first turn, it’s Chump Change in the lead, with Doctor Strangelove coming up on the inside….”) We all understand, if we think about it for just a minute, that an election is not a horse race, and to describe it as if it is adds nothing to our comprehension of what is actually happening.

It accomplishes the same thing Ronald Reagan used to do, in his early days as a sportscaster, when he took the box scores of a faraway baseball game off the wire service and used them to imagine the game itself and broadcast a play-by-play description. No harm, no foul, we might say; although the broadcast was bogus, it was entertaining, made money for the broadcaster, and was, as they say, inspired by true events.

But what if the box scores were bogus?

The presidential horse race myth is not nearly so benign as the imagined ball game. For one thing, it lasts for two years out of every four, and is an enormous distraction from problems that are more serious and more immediate than who gets to ride on Air Force One in two years. The amounts of money involved to put on the fake-race show, and buy ads on it, is sufficiently gigantic to engender endless corruption. The reduction of the complexities of a presidential election to the mindless simplicity of a horse race stunts the growth of our Republic.

But wait, it may be much worse than that. What if the box scores upon which this giant fraud rests — the polls — are themselves fraudulent? The imaginary ball game was a lie, sure, but harmless because it was based on the truth, the box scores of a real game played by real players. We assume that whatever its faults, the horse-race meme is at least based on polls that tell us what the people are thinking and how their thinking is changing.

Maybe not. Have you noticed that the two oldest and most prestigious polling organizations in the country — Gallup and Pew Research — are not even participating in this year’s “horse-race” frenzy? They’re worried about their future — and what worries them about their future is their past. Responsible polling companies seem to have lost confidence in their own product.

Back in October, Gallup stunned the political-industrial complex by announcing it would not conduct any voter polling during the primary campaigns, and maybe not during the general election. Or maybe ever, if they cannot figure out why they have gotten so bad at doing what they have always done best.  In 2012, Gallup’s final polls had Romney winning the presidency in a squeaker; Obama won going away. In 2010, Gallup had the Republicans sweeping Congress much more decisively than they did. And that’s the recent record of the best of the pollsters; the rest of the crowd has been even worse.

The fact is, political polling is no longer reliable.

To provide a useful picture of voter attitudes (which can change hours later), a poll must engage a large enough sample (about 1,000), must select them randomly (within universes, of, say, registered voters), and just be careful not to skew the answers with loaded questions (Republican candidates poll better when Republicans ask the questions, and vice versa).

What has crippled polling more than any other factor is the death of the land-line telephone. Once upon a time, every adult had one, its number told you where it was, and you could look it up in a public directory. Now, fewer than half of adults have one (or use it as their primary telephone). There are now more mobile phones in use in America than there are human beings; 60% of people under 45 have only a cell phone.

This is big trouble for pollsters. Automated random dialing of cell phone numbers is illegal, so polling cell phones is slower and more expensive. Land line polling is cheaper and easier, but increasingly no one bothers to answer. And in either case, when the person called realizes it’s a pollster, they often hang up. These and many other problems of modern polling mean that many polls are just flat wrong, maybe when they insist that Trump is leading or Carson is gaining.

When Ronald Reagan beguiled a summer afternoon by re-creating a baseball game, no apparent harm was done. When Wolf Blitzer calls a political horse race, assuring us that certifiable lunatics are leading contenders to be President of the United States — when they may not in fact be enjoying significant support — the harm could be incalculable.  

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4 Responses to Presidential Poll Dancing

  1. Tom says:

    Ah, the whole charade is smoke and mirrors, and in the end doesn’t count if the result isn’t what “they” want. First off, it’s only between two pre-picked characters and NOT about POLICY or the direction the country is going. As we saw when Obama took over from Bush II, there wasn’t any change in policy (“i’m looking forward not back”) – we’re still in the businesses of war all over the planet (what, ya wanna call it regime change? fine) and financial gambling (and chicanery). All of this distracts from (actually it enhances) the REAL problem – we’re going extinct in short order.

    Secondly they have the Electoral College that can completely change the outcome of the actual election (as if that means anything in the era of hackable electronic voting machines).

    Next on the play list of fantasy elections is the game-rigging called gerrymandering that the newly elected carve out sometime during their term to ensure they have another.

    Fourth: politics can’t solve the predicament we’re now in regarding fossil fuel use (industrial civilization) and pollution of the environment (which is now completely independent of anything humanity does – it’s shutting down the ability to sustain ANY life on the planet – and we’ll be among the first species to go, dependent as we are on industrial agriculture and food production, especially since all marine life is dying off).

    i’ll stop there (oh there’s plenty more reasons the political system we used to call “democracy” no longer works – like Citizens United, for example), but just wanted to point out that politics going forward is a waste of time, energy, resources, money and has little to no effect on the welfare of the citizens – especially as the environment continues to degrade, because that’s what human civilization does to the biosphere every minute of every day.

    Great post Mr. Lewis – thanks for being eloquent while stating the truth about our political situation.

  2. Rob Rhodes says:

    I have been wondering if polls have been skewed by the real unemployment rate of around 20% (as indicated by the low labour force participation rate). This may have led to a significant portion of the population with no phone at all. Even if their turnout is low they would be a considerable factor if they voted heavily for one party. Maybe Gallup and Pew should go low tech; door to door, street corner to corner.

    • Philip says:


      I’m confused by your reference to the real unemployment rate being around 20%. From whence are you getting that figure. From all the articles I’ve been reading (and I can post the references if you want) the number of unemployed seems to be between 93 and 94 million although this week a figure above 100 was mentioned.

      So with a total population of around 320 million wouldn’t the unemployment rate be closer to 30 – 33% figure I’ve seen bandied about.

      Perhaps my sources are not as reliable as yours?

      Anecdotal story for today. On my first flight in over 8 years headed toward Cozumel I’ve been speaking and listening to people. Had a short conversation with a woman lawyer from Virginia whose down here to dive. While holding the book “The Mortal Sea” in my hands during the van ride to the hotel (she took no note of the book) she asked what brought me down. When I responded that I wanted to see the reefs and fish before they are totally gone. Her response was, “Well let’s hope that the ocean can regenerate itself, it would be shame to lose it.”

      Is this what claims to be intelligent life on this planet. What evidence would this legal eagle need to know that there is a crisis going on.

      From what I’ve observed and heard from other people the lawyer’s views were not unique. It was as if I were living in Rome during the collapse and the Roman patricians are waiting to be fed grapes by their slaves (which seems to be how the American’s here treat the locals.

      News this week of another Coral Reef die off event (the 3rd including 1999 and 2010) and it’s not even a blimp on most people’s radar.

      When i read Tom’s (from PA) comments they certainly make sense, but most of the time I’m questioning my own sanity. It’s like the bridge collapsing in MINN a few years ago. Collapsing is happening over time and once the tipping point is reach it all collapses in moments and then is collapsed the moment after, but collapsing can take an awful long time while things seem to functioning (for some/many) as if nothing is happening.

  3. Mike B says:

    Or it could be that the polling is wrong because elections are rigged.