Polls and the Polling Pollsters Who Poll Them
Hey, you! Stop believing polls. Stop it! Stop using them to argue for your candidate or against another. Stop using them to create underdog narratives about a candidate getting 20% of the vote, or stories about an insurmountable lead by a candidate getting 20% of the vote.
Why harp on creating narratives from polls when you could be talking about the issues your candidate supports instead?
Why should you ignore the polls? Because until it starts to matter, and actual voting is around the corner, polls don’t gauge any true reflection of reality. If they did, we’d be talking about the successor to President Herman Cain right now.
Increasingly, pollsters have created a cottage industry of building narratives for the publications and news networks to which they’re attached. Those publications and news networks ignore what’s statistically significant or contextually important in order to build the best narrative they can tell, regardless of accuracy. It would seem like information is just that, and a statistic is a statistic, but when that information is cherry-picked and couched within a story written to appeal to you, is it still unbiased information?
The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Bernie Sanders Narrative
Is Sen. Bernie Sanders surging? To the naked eye, yes. Yet looking at trend-lines that include Elizabeth Warren up until the point she declined to run, it’s clear he’s simply getting many of her would-be voters. The biggest issue with Sanders isn’t whether this is a good or bad indicator – obviously it’s good for him.
How this is interpreted going forward can effect his campaign and the loosely affiliated grassroots campaigns that will be key to his doing well in the primaries. The issue is that his surge is being widely interpreted as a statistically significant indicator. There’s a difference between “good” and “statistically significant.”
Sanders isn’t creating a new bloc of liberal Democrats as the alternative press wants to believe. He’s simply stepping in as the candidate for a pre-existing bloc. That changes the narrative because it means he’s not surging off his own power as much as he’s adopting a party wing that’s looking for a candidate. Why does that difference matter? Both narratives are good, but because that more liberal wing within the Democratic Party has a statistically quantifiable history, it creates different potential paths going forward. If Sanders supporters were an organic surge, they wouldn’t have a history as a bloc of voters. That liberal wing within the party does have such a history, however.
Instead, supporters want to use the rise in Sanders’ polling numbers to assign an Obama narrative to the Senator from Vermont as an underdog representing the true base. This is unwise for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Sanders is well to the left of Obama. We tend to forget it, but so is Sen. Hillary Clinton. She was the one in 2008 who suggested directly challenging an obstinate GOP Congress on base issues of the Left. Obama was the one who suggested a more moderate and pre-negotiated attitude toward compromise. Obama, acting as the second candidate to Clinton’s first, made his campaign work from the center outward. This caused Hillary to become something closer to the “fringe candidate” in the base’s mind. Whether such narratives are fair or not, they exist and the media is happy to drive them. Sanders is attempting to make his campaign work from the outside inward, meaning that the Obama narrative may not be the best choice of campaign story lines to emulate.
Secondly, creating a false narrative around Sanders rather than dealing with the reality of his situation encourages supporters to have an unrealistic view of the current state of his campaign. While his campaign may remain disciplined, any serious run on his part will rely on grassroots organizations that his campaign lacks the personnel to manage early. If these grassroots organizations believe Sanders represents an outside-in surge of the party’s natural base, as opposed to representing an established-yet-limited voting bloc, that can create an important difference in how campaigners believe Sanders should be presented to the Democratic base. The on-the-ground narrative and arguments made will misinterpret the immediate concerns of the base, and leave many scratching their heads.
This isn’t to say that Sanders has no chance – Democrats tend to reward the new voice in the room, as they did with Bill Clinton in 1992 and Barack Obama in 2008.
At the same time, Sanders supporters forget that Bill Bradley picked up 36.6% of the vote in Iowa and 45.59% of the vote in New Hampshire in a mostly fruitless challenge to the sitting Vice President Al Gore in 2000. Clinton and Obama ran from the inside-out. They positioned themselves as the center candidate. Bradley ran from the outside-in.
Our Hypocrisy Reflected in the Window of a Clown Car
Let’s see who’s running to succeed President Herman Cain on the Republican side: this time last year, the top Republicans in the race for president were Gov. Chris Christie and Rep. Paul Ryan. Ryan isn’t running and has largely dropped off the face of the planet, while Christie is polling so low today that he scraped into the Fox News debates as the 9th highest polling of 10 accepted candidates.
And let’s look at that Fox News debate. Liberals are champing at the bit to jump on the logic of Fox relying on something as fungible as an average of several early polls to dictate the narrative of the Republican race…but then we’ll turn around and apply our own narrative focusing on the importance of cherry-picked polling regarding Bernie Sanders.
Which is true? Do polls define the narrative and display to us the realistic chances of candidates a la the Sanders narrative, or are they unreliable, fickle, and not solid enough data to depict the reality of a race a la the Republicans? It cannot be both.
In fact, the pollster Marist is so incensed at how Fox News is using polls of the GOP field to excise extraneous candidates that they’ve stopped polling the Republican primary altogether. Way to take a stand, Marist! Good for them, right?
Well, not so fast. NBC and MSNBC can report that the Republican approach is so ridiculous that a pollster has entirely stopped doing the only purpose they’ve been set on this Earth to do. Except Marist is affiliated with NBC. It’s not a crisis of conscience that Marist has. It’s a crisis of creating news, of inventing narrative and using it to tweak other invented narratives. NBC gets to use Marist to create a news story while still developing their own polls off their more well known poll affiliation with the Wall Street Journal. At the same time, Marist gets to become more well-known, bolstering its own name in a very contentious field of pollsters.
None of it is news anymore. None of it addresses a single issue that will or won’t effect this country. It’s narrative, cherry-picked and re-crafted behind the scenes to fill 24-hour news networks which long ago cut their investigative staffs and suddenly have no real insight or news to report. In the entire time you’ve been reading this article, you haven’t read a single word about a real issue of governance.
So quit it. Quit believing polls. Quit believing pollsters, especially months out from the first primaries. Quit putting stock in these polls. Quit obsessing over them like it’s your fantasy football team. Learn which writers actually understand what they write about when it comes to polling, and take time to explain the methods behind polls for you. When you click on a story about a poll, click on the poll itself. Read it. Mouse around. Learn. Look at where the story is telling you the truth and where it’s leaving out important details.
If you buy into the narratives created by editors and producers with space to fill, without understanding the contexts in which they occur, then you are in danger of believing and fostering narratives that damage and misguide the very candidates you seek to support.
When the primaries draw near, polls and the stories written on them will begin to reflect more accurate information. Yet even then, news media of all stripes will continue to frame that information in such a way as to drive the stories they want to tell and create conflict where none existed before.
Gabriel Valdez has been a campaign manager in Oregon, an investigative reporter in Texas, and a film producer in Massachusetts. His writing was named best North American arts criticism of 2014 by the Local Media Association, and earned recognition by the National Newspaper Association. You can read more of his writing on Movies Change You and Article Cats