Polling: What's the Point?

Conor Clarke suggests removing polls from the American political process. Not only are poll results frequently wrong, he argues, but polling “uncomfortably expands the domain of democracy.” He also writes of some election-day exit polls that have been banned “because early ones have been shown to influence the behavior of people who haven’t yet made their way to the voting booths.” [%comments]

Walter Wimberly

I've always feared that election day polls do a disservice to those on the west coast - as they are more likely to feel disconnected because they can often see how the election is going (too many for or against their choice - they say why bother, and local candidates don't get the support they need - or conversely a close race pulls more people to the polls than would normally attend.)

I've argued for the past 3 presidential elections that results and polls should be released only when enough votes have been tallied to show a winner for that race. or all polling places are closed - which ever is first. i.e. a local race might show when 75% of polling places report, but there are enough votes to define a winner for that race - but presidential races couldn't be shown until enough electoral college votes are earned. At the same time, in a case like 2000 - where the Bush wasn't declared for some time afterwards, (or more recently in Minn. with Al Franklin) when the polls all closed, local results could be shown and reported.

Granted this means that maybe those of us on the East coast don't go to bed knowing who won - but does it really matter in the grand scheme.



Constant polling allows politicians to know what the people want. In responding to polls and their community's opinions, these elected representatives can act in the interests of their citizens. Polling can provide the most democratic system of all, giving a voice back to the people on issues that aren't on ballots.


wow- this is one of the more candid editorials i've seen- clarke's contempt for democracy is put into the long tradition of seeing the public as ratifiers, not participants- fortunately his view of history is ignorant of how social reform is effected- as Marx said, an idea only becomes powerful when taken hold of by the masses


I don't see how a ban on polling would be consistent with the first amendment. Such a ban probably wouldn't, and shouldn't, survive a court challenge.


Clearly, Conor Clarke has never been to fivethirtyeight.com. Nate Silver and Co. do a fabulous job of making sense of polls.


Yes, but without some measure of polls, wouldn't election fraud be much eaiser? (look at Iran)

Dale Sheldon

Polls are absolutely necessary for us to get the most out of our electoral system.

Plurality elections require that the voters know who the top-two contenders are (or they risk throwing their vote away or contributing to a spoiler) . This is especially true early on, when candidates are deciding whether or not to run, and even more-so in the lead up to the primary; which often involves more than two strong candidates, a situation which is particularly sensitive to vote-splitting errors leading to picking the "wrong" candidate, as voters must balance their desire to pick their true favorite against their desire to pick the candidate which will best be able to beat the opposition candidate in the final election. Three (or more) way elections and the question of who-can-actually-win are incredibly valuable, to candidates and to voters, and can only be effectively answered by polling.

Craig in MN

I'm always frustrated when I watch/listen/read the news and encounter the poll results instead. A poll is not news. It is the result of asking a fictional question (if the election was held today) to an uncertain population, manipulated by unexplained statistical calculations, effectively released as 2 numbers. They might be pretty good at figuring out what people think to people who know the details, but they are more effective at cementing in the minds of news consumers that they know what will happen when delivered without context.

I think we'd be better off without polls in the news, but if they want to keep reporting them, they should provide context, such as: "This poll says that we are 95% sure that Obama would get the votes of between 52% and 46% of voters and that McCain would get the votes of between 42% and 48% of voters. And there's a 5% chance that these results are totally wrong and we have no idea how people would vote. Other polls would (and do) say something else, depending on who gets asked what and how the statistics were manipulated." That's a lot more honest, informative, and easier to ignore than a soundbite that says "Obama leads McCain 49-45 , plus or minus 3%".


science minded

the point is if you happen to be the type of person who cares what others think- you will follow the polls. But If a person gathers the knowledge and information and thinks for themselves. who cares what the polls say. It is true that from a statistical standpoint, a prediction might be correct-- But might be does not mean is in the final talley. There is no ultimate solution to this problem. so what does a wise person do? I guess it would depend on the situation at hand. When it comes to medecine and the market, I am always mindful of the various points of view. When it comes to voting and to my rights as a voter, I prefer to hold on to the idea of one person, one vote even if it is at odds with the way in which votes may still be counted even these days (despite the Gore loss or Bush's apparent coup) .

science minded

And in a certain sense I have no choice but to be affected by the statististical odds-- so we are back to or a bit ahead of square one.


As mentioned above, the claim that the "polls are frequently wrong" would seem to have been pretty directly contradicted by Silver at fivethirtyeight.com. And polling on other issues allows politicians to see how a representative sample of the population feels about important issues. It lessens the chance that one small but vocal minority can set policy by repeatedly bothering politicians. Polls are useful tools for assessing public opinion. Of course, the methodology and margin of error must be released (and it usually is, even if news organizations are sometimes lax in reporting it) and polls should be judged by their historical reliability (which they sometimes are, although it's rare). But even with the drawbacks, polls are helpful in the discussion of how best to govern, and efforts to remove them are efforts to neutralize the voice of the people, especially in a democracy as large as ours.



Correction, Mr. Clarke: people have been whining about the tyranny of the majority since Plato, at least. While as a Californian, I take Mr. Clarke's critique of the initiative process as practiced here, in general polls are a vital tool of democracy, if for no other reason than that they can encourage the losing side to increase its efforts.


Polls influence how people vote, influence politician's policies and are generally bad.

Plus the media talks about approval on whoever's healthcare policy more than they talk about the actual policy.

However, as we have seen in Iran, without polls it is hard to know if the results are accurate.

Eric M. Jones

I really really really want to believe that polling has some great democratic benefit and that politicians pay attention to pollings so that they may better know the "will of the people".... I want to believe with all my heart that electronic voting isn't rigged and that fairies can enable others to fly by sprinkling them with fairy dust .

But let's get real. The media, in cahoots with powerful political machines, manipulate information, feed blather to the great unwashed masses, and then poll to see the effect. "How is the polling result changed if we question Obama's birth certificate?" "What happens when we call him a socialist?"

To think that the public has some well-considered opinion is to deny that Fox is a branch of the Republican machine and that they target fearful uneducated people with a limitless barage of paid-for opinion.

Oh yes, and then they poll to see what effect they had.

The best information comes from outside the US borders, like the BBC. I imagine there are many other sources, but they don't speak English unfortunately.



Most public opinion polls are BS with a veneer of fake scientific method -- they ask the wrong questions, in the wrong way, of the wrong people, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons. And then there are the evil-minded respondents like myself who always lie to pollsters.

Mark S.

Concur with #5. fivethirtyeight.com & electoral-vote.com had it down perfectly only missed the 2nd in NE plus 538 missed IN which was really really close.

Mark S.

Add to #16: I would however concur with the author if we expand the definition of polls beyond the political realm. Car buyers insist on SUVs, Chrysler and GM serve their want and go bankrupt. The rest of us pay the price. People pay inflated prices for houses with sub-prime mortgages. Segments of the financial system crash. The rest of us pay the price.

Thomas B.

Why should we care if polls influence how people vote? The whole idea of the private ballot is that citizens have a right to base their ballot on any irrational criteria they like. Besides, who's to say that leaving an unpopular candidate is that irrational anyway? There are certainly far worse reasons to support or reject a politician.

Alex J

Leaving out the discussion over whether polls themselves are harmful (let's assume they are) - then what? I would think many people would find restricting people's freedoms so as to prevent the harm even worse than the polls' harm itself


The dirty little secret of polling is that the only purposes it serves, are:

1. For the candidates, to tell them where they stand among voters and adjust strategy;

2. For pundits and commentators, as fodder to justify whatever bilge they're spewing at the moment; and

3. For the mass media as "makenews" ... i.e. something to report on when there's no other election-oriented news that day.

It does not serve any known purpose to voters themselves. All they do to voters, is to clutter up the election with a lot of supposition and expectations. They also provide fuel for misinformation by interested partisans, mostly the candidates and their political parties, and by pundits, commentators, and ideologues, for whatever nefarious reasons they may have for saying whatever it is they want to say.

In other words, polling data reported prior to election day only serves to obfuscate. It does not -- and cannot -- inform.

Politicians are fond of saying, "The only poll that counts is at the ballot box." To that, I say -- in the immortal words of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard -- "Make it so!" Let's have it exactly that way. No polling data other than election results. Period. End the misinformation. Make the elections count for something.