Wait, So Who’s Leading in the Polls?

Ah, it’s election season. The smell of commitment cards, the pings of daily “please give me money” emails, and the constant media updates that someone is winning some new poll. It seems that there is a new leader in the polls every hour. It’s almost like watching those NASCAR races where the announcers overdramatically and aggressively narrate the race.

During the summer, this ridiculous reporting style was very present during the Bernie Sanders climb. It seemed every day there was a story saying, “SANDERS OVERTAKING CLINTON IN NEWEST POLL.” As a Clinton supporter myself, it got rather frustrating to discuss policy and presidency with people only to have them throw Sanders’ poll numbers in my face.

Moreover, not all polls are created equal. Just because there is a new poll by a certain company or media source, does not mean it’s correct or that it’s an adequate representation. Polling is a very specific science and not every poll is created or implemented correctly. That’s one of the reasons why media reporting can be incredibly misleading–they could just be straight up wrong.

The media also tends just to mention one poll at a time without giving any other averages. They fail to give the full picture or context of what’s actually happening. Polls make it very easy for the media to say someone’s winning without having to compare policies or candidates. The reports of these singular polls make it very easy for media to just swing public opinion without having the real facts.

Polls actually aren’t even that useful for early campaigns–and some polls are just useless altogether. The New York Times reports,

endorsements from party elites are better predictors than polls of who will win the presidential nomination. First, these officials can help candidates win by rallying supporters to their side and providing financial and organizational assistance. In addition, party elites observe the contenders closely and can often anticipate which candidates are most likely to be successful.

The people who make the endorsements are leaders with lots of experience–think interest groups, party leadership, elected officials. They know the ebb and flow of election season and how things may develop. In other words, they see the long haul. Polls are just a single snapshot in time. Polls have been going on since this summer–over a year until the actual election. Is a snapshot of the climate helpful at that point? No because so many things have changed since this summer that those polls are pretty much useless.

A lot of people are also focusing on national polls. I really hate these because they provide absolutely no useful information. Primaries are not national. They are local. They are done by state. National polls don’t help predict primaries at all. They don’t even help that much with the general election, due to how American presidential elections function. The elections aren’t decided by the plurality of the nation—they are decided on a state-by state basis. This is because of the electoral college which is too confusing to get into right now, but trust me on this.

If you really must look at polls, because they are helpful to get a general idea of what’s happening, you have to look at the averages of polls. Realclearpolitics.com is amazing with polling data and always includes an average so you do get a bigger picture.


So this election season, make sure you practice safe polling.

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