Panicking about polls showing Donald Trump ahead of President Biden? Please stop

(Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

Panicking about polls showing Donald Trump ahead of President Biden? Please stop

Opinion piece, Elections 2024

Cornell Belcher

January 24, 2024

Just under a year after the election, headlines have been consumed by the latest bad polls for the president. The New York Times even wonders if the president is comforted as the hand-wringing spreads across the progressive community.

While this may sound familiar to anyone who has been reading about President Biden in recent weeks, I’m referring to the polls and headlines President Obama faced in the run-up to the 2012 election, which, in case you’ve forgotten, he won rather handily despite Mitt Romney. in surveys well before the vote.

In recent election cycles, polling has increasingly become a central focus of media coverage of campaigns, especially presidential contests. And that’s a shame. Average voters should rarely see or hear about polls because they are not particularly relevant or actionable to them.

In many ways, however, polls are the driving force behind stories in the political media. Polling is no longer part of a news story; It


the news story.

The problem is that horse racing numbers can drive almost any story that politicians or journalists see fit, regardless of whether it is accurate; see the great media frenzy of the 2022 midterm elections, which of course turned out to be the opposite of the truth. The mainstream media’s reporting of campaigns from such a point of view is not only incorrect, but also irresponsible.

Such reporting does to politics what modern cooking shows have done to gastronomy: turning it into something of a sporting competition in which much of the content that could serve the viewer, such as how to cook something, is lost in covering dramatic culinary competitions. Likewise, instead of helping voters make informed decisions based on the differences between candidates, pundits (myself included) spend a lot of time defending or against a candidate based not on their policy positions, but on their poll. What is lost is what the candidates’ different data, beliefs, and policy positions might mean for voters’ daily lives.

I understand why polls have become a media obsession. People have always wanted to be able to predict the future, and opinion polls are unfortunately misinterpreted as a political crystal ball.

But predicting the future is not what polls are for. Polls are not designed to do what people want most: predict election winners, Monika McDermott, a professor at Fordham University who studies political psychology and public opinion, told me. There are far too many variables at stake in any election to predict the election perfectly. But the media and news consumers find horse racing numbers exciting and easy to digest, so all the attention is focused on them.

So covering the horse race doesn’t just give voters the vital information they need. It also spends an inordinate amount of time on something that has little connection to what’s going to happen.

When I work on campaigns, I often tell my clients that the horse race number, which shows how one candidate is doing against another, is the least important thing in a poll. That number is the amount of time and resources campaign researchers spend to understand how to change, and we do. A presidential campaign will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to change that number. So as a pollster, I’m not fixated on where my candidate is in the infighting; I focus on the issues and messages that will help me move that number.

In a two-person race, no candidate with less than 50% support is truly safe. If you don’t have a majority, there are plenty of voters who can be convinced and determine the outcome. So while the headlines scream that Trump is leading Biden and the chattering progressive class panics, it doesn’t really matter that Trump is leading at this point. The lead at this point, when the arguments and contrasts of the campaign have yet to be made, does not predict the eventual winner.

That’s especially true in a presidential contest. Ronald Reagan was trailing early in public opinion polls before his re-election, as were Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama. But in the end, those national campaigns found compelling contrasts, effective attacks on their opponents, a story about their achievements in office, and a vision of the future that drew voters to them over time.

That’s what good campaign polling essentially does: it examines how an attack affects different voters so they can understand how to target an ad. It determines where support among base voters is weak and how they can show that the candidate is fighting for them. It tests the most effective policy proposals to contrast with an opponent to sway swing voters.

While horse racing numbers are fluid and changeable, voters’ core values ​​and beliefs are not. Good pollsters look beyond the top line to understand how voters make sense and order their lives so we can show them that our candidate can be trusted.

Good campaign reporting must adhere to similar principles. The average reader or viewer doesn’t get any useful information from sensational headlines telling them who seems to be winning or losing at the moment. How about using more of these resources to explain what each candidate election would mean for people like them? That’s the kind of reporting that would lead to more informed voting and ensure the best candidate wins.

Cornell Belcher is the president of Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies and a political analyst for NBC News. He was a pollster for the Democratic National Committee and Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.


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