Dazed? Confused? Here’s what we should make of all these presidential polls

Dazed? Confused? Here’s what we should make of all these presidential polls

Elections 2024, California politics

Mark Z. Barabak

November 8, 2023

Early this week, the New York Times published polls of one half

dozens of political battlegrounds


and you might have thought that Moses himself climbed Mt


Sinai with a commandment:

This is how the 2024 presidential race will be decided.

The findings were not good for the Democratic incumbent.

President Biden trails the serially predicted Donald Trump in five of the six key states, according to the survey, and was barely ahead in the sixth.

Right on schedule, a democratic panic attack ensued, as predictable as Sunday’s transition from daylight saving time to local standard time. Democrats are worriers by nature


and the polls provided ample reason for partisan stomachs to turn.

A new Los Angeles Times investigation, conducted in collaboration with the UC Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies, will only add to the fear. It shows for the first time in his presidency that a majority of California voters disapprove of Biden’s performance.

The polls make it clear


The current occupant of the White House is 80 years old and given his age, he is quite vulnerable as he makes a bid for a second term next year. But that’s news to very few conscious people.

The polls tell us very little about how the 2024 presidential campaign will go, which everyone would like to know.

You can quibble about different aspects of the poll. Jon Ralston, Nev


expert on all things political, offered a compelling explanation for why Trump was highly unlikely to have an 11-percentage-point lead in that highly competitive state, as the New York Times has suggested.

But picking those nits is less important than appreciating a greater truth. Opinion polls cannot predict the future and should not be treated as gospel truth.

Predicting presidential elections a year from now is like predicting the weather on November 5, 2024. It is possible to make some general assumptions. (It will be cooler than in July, for example


and maybe rain or snow, depending on location.) But good luck determining the exact temperature.

Whit Ayres, who has spent decades polling and strategizing for Republican candidates, described the Democratic fortunes of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris as the weakest since those of George McGovern and Sargent Shriver, who were shot by President Nixon in 1972.

But Ayres is not convinced that Republicans will win the White House.

“There will be a host of events between now and November 2024 that could change the outcome, or at least influence the outcome.


of the elections,” Ayres said.

He isn’t even sure that Biden and Trump will be their respective party nominees, though it seems more likely than not.

“There are a lot of people who make flat statements about what’s going to happen… that may turn out to be right, but could just as easily turn out to be wrong,” Ayres said, “because they are influenced by events. “That hasn’t happened yet.”

It is often said that a poll is a snapshot, that is, a representation of the state of a campaign at a particular point in time.

But a more apt description might be an oil painting, which requires many decisions about how to display a portrait.

Pollsters, and we’re talking about the conscientious ones here, have spent a lot of time and effort figuring out how best to model their voter samples. That means that once they finish interviewing respondents, they weigh the result to make sure it includes the right ratio of men to women, young and old.


and other groups


based on census data.

Then pollsters can further adjust those results to reflect what percentage of each group they think will turn out for a particular election. (Sometimes results are broken down by registered voters


those who are expected to cast a vote.)

The way questions are asked is crucial. Neutral formulations are crucial


such as any biases “If you know that candidate X worships Satan and hates little children, would you vote for him?” can seriously distort the results.

There’s a science behind it. But the process also requires a certain amount of educated guesswork.

Courtney Kennedy oversees the methodology and calculations for the Pew Research Center, which conducts in-depth studies. The center does top work and focuses on broader trends and attitudes, not the usual horse racing.

Kennedy lamented the proliferation of shoddy research that is attracting so much undeserved attention. (She wasn’t talking about it


(the New York Times, which has been conducting renowned investigations for decades.)

“There are no more barriers to being a poll worker,” Kennedy said. “It used to be that you had to have a physical store and professional interviewers. Now anyone with a few thousand dollars could go to 100 different websites and, quote-unquote,

do a national poll.

And people do that too.”

Kennedy offered some tips to help the average person become a better, more informed consumer of political polls.

To start, she suggests taking the margin of error, the variance between what a poll shows and what the result would have been if every person in the survey universe had been interviewed, and doubling it.

Simply put, this means that a poll is much less accurate than commonly believed. If candidate A gets 50% and candidate B gets 45%


and the stated margin of error is 3%, consider the race essentially even. (Which is not like attention

grab, but sorry.)

Other things to look out for: Is the poll being conducted by a political party, candidate, or group pursuing an agenda? Look after.

Is the sample size less than 500 interviews? Never mind. That is not useful research.

How long did the poll take in the field where voters were interviewed? A longer time frame means a greater chance of drawing a representative sample.

Is the survey only conducted in English? That’s meaningless in places like California, Nevada, Florida, or pretty much anywhere with a meaningful immigrant population.

Is the pollster willing to show his or her work, revealing how many interviews were conducted in what time period and in what languages? Transparency is key.

“If you see a poll and there’s no discussion about how they weighted party or past votes or anything like that, chances are it’s going to produce suspect results,” Kennedy said.

Of course, there’s an easier solution: ignore those who are up in the polls and those who are down.

Read a book. Go for a walk. Eat some fiber.

If you’re really concerned about the direction of the country, your state, or your community, go work for the candidate or candidates you want to see elected. Or put yourself forward as a candidate.

But don’t believe there is some magical way for a poll to predict the future.

Above all, there is a cliché brought out by losing candidates in the final stages of their campaign, which is that the poll that matters most is the one on Election Day.

It may be corny, but there is a lot of truth in it.


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