Dem pollsters admit ‘major errors’ as they struggle to survive evidence that polls now are worthless

Political polling has always been of questionable value in my eyes, yet until recently it’s been highly prized (and pollsters well compensated). When performed for media outlets, polling often is done to advance an agenda (so-called “push polling”), phrasing questions in a manner designed to produce results that would convince the public that a certain issue or candidate is what the cool kids favor. But even when done for a candidate seeking to discover where he or she stands in the public eye, the potential for abuse is high. Candidates re-packaging themselves to appeal to a broader group rather than deciding issues on the merits, resorting to misleading language to hide their real positions, and outright pandering are just some of the problems.

But now that the media and pollsters have earned well-deserved scorn from a very large share of the public, so many people either refuse to speak with pollsters or outright lie to them in order to confound their ability to be useful, I think they have outlived their effectiveness for anybody. Thus we have Democrat pollsters huddling together over how to save their profession (and their bank accounts) and issuing a big mea culpa. Steven Shepard of Politico reports:

A group of top Democratic Party pollsters are set to release a public statement Tuesday acknowledging “major errors” in their 2020 polling — errors that left party officials stunned by election results that failed to come close to expectations in November.

In an unusual move, five of the party’s biggest polling firms have spent the past few months working together to explore what went wrong last year and how it can be fixed. It’s part of an effort to understand why — despite data showing Joe Biden well ahead of former President Donald Trump, and Democrats poised to increase their House majority — the party won the presidency, the Senate and House by extremely narrow margins.

“Twenty-twenty was an ‘Oh, s---' moment for all of us,” said one pollster involved in the effort, who was granted anonymity to discuss the process candidly. “And I think that we all kinda quickly came to the point that we need to set our egos aside. We need to get this right."

That’s about where the answers end. The collaboration’s first public statement acknowledges that their industry “saw major errors and failed to live up to our own expectations.” But the memo also underscores the limits of the polling autopsy, noting that “no consensus on a solution has emerged.”

I doubt that any of them will admit that there is no point in relying any further on polls because the public no longer will cooperate. So, I’ll be watching for rationalizations, Rube Goldberg attempts to refine their models of turnout, and ultimately, fury at the public for failing to be good research subjects.

Some readers may know that I earned a doctorate in sociology at Harvard. Even back then I was deeply skeptical of survey research, the broader category of inquiry that includes polling. It was obvious to me that not only was it possible to skew results in a direction the researcher favored (and I knew at least one grad student who openly admitted to doing so for political reasons), but also that people don’t always tell the truth. But the allure of quantitative results -- because they look like science --  is irresistible to people who work in what is generously called the social sciences.

Image credit: onlinestreet   CC BY 4.0 license

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