Their record is uneven. They misfired in one way or another in the past three presidential elections. And yet the prevalence of election polls is undiminished. Thirteen months before the 2024 election, polls are many – and inescapable.
Why is that? What explains polling’s abiding appeal despite its performance record?
The reasons go beyond facile analogies that election polls are akin to weather forecasts in offering a fluid, if sometimes contradictory, sense of what lies ahead.
Polls and poll-based forecasts are not always in error, as I noted in my 2020 book, “Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections.” Their enduring appeal rests in part in offering a sense of data-based certainty that can be irresistible, especially to journalists who tend to value precision in a field awash with ambiguity.
It is hardly surprising, then, that news organizations also are polling operations. Ties to election polling live deep in the media’s DNA.
A deep affinity for polls
The Literary Digest, an American news magazine published weekly from 1890 to 1938, conducted massive mail-in polls early in the 20th century and built what was widely called an “uncanny” record for predicting presidential elections accurately – until it failed utterly in 1936.
The magazine’s poll that year was based on returns of more than 2.3 million postcard ballots and estimated an easy victory for Republican Alf Landon over incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat.
Within two years, the Literary Digest was absorbed by Time magazine.
Major news organizations these days figure prominently in election surveying. CNN, The Economist, Fox News, NBC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Yahoo News – among others – all conduct or commission preelection polls. Results of media-sponsored polls are shared with the built-in large audiences of the respective news outlets, exerting what polling expert David Moore has called “a major influence” on public perceptions of an election.
Indeed, media polls – notably CNN’s and the final preelection survey conducted jointly for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal – showed Joe Biden holding double-digit leads over Donald Trump in the run-up to the 2020 election, encouraging expectations of a landslide. But the outcome was no rout. Biden won the election by 4.5 percentage points.
Another reason why election polls endure is that memories among both the public and pollsters about past failures tend to be fleeting.
By nature, opinion research and journalism are forward-looking pursuits. Their practitioners tend not to dwell on, or often recall, how poorly election polls fared in 2020, for example, by collectively overstating Biden’s prospects of victory.
Recollections have likewise dimmed about how polls in key states in 2016 mostly failed to detect decisive, late-campaign shifts in Trump’s favor. Or how in 2012 the venerable Gallup Poll erred in consistently giving Mitt Romney the advantage in preelection matchups with President Barack Obama.
Failure notwithstanding, polls long ago became central features of the theater of American politics. Their results help sharpen and give dimension to the competitive drama of national elections. A tightening race or a building landslide can be at least mildly suspenseful and diverting.
Polls command attention because they “give the public and the candidates some inkling of the electorate’s thinking,” as media critic Jack Shafer has noted.
Moreover, polls have become useful both to Democrats and Republicans in winnowing bloated fields of presidential candidates, most of whom have no chance of being nominated. Both parties in recent years have imposed thresholds of polling support for candidates to qualify for party-sponsored debates early in the cycle.
The 2024 presidential election campaign has offered a historically unusual reason to pay attention to the polls, even ones this early.
Not since 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican Party in a failed attempt to return to the White House four years after he had left the office, has a former president campaigned to reclaim the office. Trump’s candidacy for reelection no doubt has encouraged closer than customary attention to the polls, especially as they have indicated he maintains enormous leads over rivals for the Republican nomination.
What else is there?
Significantly, election polling benefits from a what-else-is-there attitude among journalists, opinion researchers, historians of public polling and politicians that no other reasonably accurate options exist in sampling the public’s views and attitudes.
Extensive interviewing by political journalists, an earnest technique called “shoe-leather” reporting, occasionally has been tried by news organizations seeking an alternative to reliance on polls. But such experiments have produced little success.
A notable advocate of shoe-leather journalism was Haynes Johnson, a political reporter for The Washington Post who died in 2013. Johnson was a poll-basher, asserting that they represent “no substitute for hard reporting” and bluntly acknowledging, “I hate the polls.”
In the weeks before the 1980 election, when President Jimmy Carter sought a second term, Johnson wrote lengthy preelection articles based on many hours of interviews with Americans in places as diverse as Boston, San Diego and Youngstown, Ohio. As the campaign neared its end, Johnson was asked on the PBS program “Washington Week in Review” who was positioned to win. “I think somehow that Carter is going to slip through” and be reelected, he replied.
A few days later, Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in a landslide.
So, if you want clues to what the electorate is thinking in an election campaign – and almost everyone seems interested in such knowledge, from voters, journalists and pundits to donors, campaign workers and candidates – “shoe-leather” journalism won’t cut it. Counting candidates’ yard signs won’t cut it, either. Estimating crowd size at campaign rallies is seldom very revealing. Odds produced by betting markets may be intriguing but aren’t consistently reliable.
For want of a better alternative, society is stuck with sample surveys, a popular, familiar, but often-fallible way of estimating outcomes in high-stakes elections.
This article was originally published in The Conversation on 6 October 2023. It can be accessed here: https://theconversation.com/often-in-error-but-still-seductive-why-we-cant-quit-election-polls-213835
About the Author
Dr. W. Joseph Campbell – is a tenured full professor in the School of Communication’s Communication Studies program. He joined the AU faculty in 1997, after some 20 years as a professional journalist. Assignments in his award-winning journalism career took him across North America to Europe, West Africa, and parts of Asia.