All Posts
  • Ideas
By Patrick Cavanaugh

How to Win Political Polls and Lose Everything in 90 Days!

Surveys show 81% of people disagree with you, 60% weren’t listening and the other half don’t care and would like you to leave them alone, thanks.

Political polls have come under fire in recent years for being wrong. 2014 midterm predictions were so bad it led the New York Times to ask “What’s the matter with polling?” last year. With #Brexit, talking heads thought it would be ridiculously unlikely for the UK to vote itself out of the European Union and polling showed #Stay would likely win out. And then, whoops, actually the #Leave campaign triumphed, and most Londoners were like “Drat, good heavens, how on earth?” while their PM resigned, his presumed replacement Boris declined to step up, and Nigel Farage fist pumped and promptly ducked out of there too, to join Trump rallies. Seriously!


The disconsolate cannot believe political polls that agree with them can be wrong, and polls that disagree are written off as dubious. And honestly, who are these people polling?! Well… when’s the last time you answered a poll? Was it on a landline at your grandmother’s house, or perhaps you were drunk dialing one night and accepted a call instead? Because these polling companies are asking SOMEBODY these questions, at least enough to get a legit sampling rate.

Pollsters primarily blame recent failures on two factors: “the growth of cellphones and the decline in people willing to answer surveys,” says political scientist Cliff Zukin, former president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. Not to mention the fact that you are going to have a bad time when you are counting on robocalls to outdated voter lists to get your poll results.

Methods are slowly changing though and online mobile efforts are showing some optimistic results. The Trumpwagon would have you believe that all the latest political polls that show their candidate is losing (#SaysWho) are wrong, his online engagement, followers count and rally attendance are the numbers that really matter. But does social media carry any real weight on election day?


Dramatic re-enactment of the Trump implosion, artist rendering.

In the end, the story remains the same. There are a few battleground states in the path to winning the electoral college, and voter turnout is the priority, not winning hearts and minds. Political polls will provide hope or despair, but if you think you’re winning you may be in for a scare. Those with the media plan and field operations to mobilize their support will succeed. Probably.

For those politicos interested in tracking polls and “election odds” over time, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight streams a biweekly podcast to talk about how the predictions have moved and why. This week, they looked at the gaps between state and national polls and between online and live-interview polls. It’s super wonky.

By Patrick Cavanaugh