Read This If You Still Think Political Polls Mean Anything
By: Claire Bernish
As a species, humans tend to behave as a herd, following one another in opinion and action — whether or not the consequences for doing so are dire. Of course, politicians and others holding seats of power, fully cognizant of the opportunities provided by this herd mentality, deftly manipulate the masses — particularly through public polls during the lead-up to presidential elections.
Most everyone comprehends how bias-infused political polling can be; however, the extent such polls play in the outcome of elections — and, conversely, how their artfully constructed questions and population samples often miss the mark — makes polling an essentially needless, if not dangerous, facet of the American electoral season.
Polls, to put it plainly, are propaganda — and have been for decades — but one particular election handily evidences this, and offers chilling insight into this year’s presidential race: the 1980 election between incumbent President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan.
Polls, for months, predicted either Carter’s win or declared the race anyone’s guess; but when Reagan managed a landslide victory — veritably crushing his opponent — politicians and the public, alike, revisited polls to parse out how pollsters managed such skewed and inaccurate forecasts.
“For weeks before the presidential election, the gurus of public opinion polling were nearly unanimous in their findings,” wrote John F. Stacks for TIME in April 1980. “In survey after survey, they agreed that the coming choice between President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan was ‘too close to call.’ A few points at most, they said, separated the two major contenders.
“But when the votes were counted, the former California Governor had defeated Carter by a margin of 51% to 41% in the popular vote — a rout for a U.S. presidential race. In the electoral college, the Reagan victory was a 10-to-1 avalanche that left the President holding only six states and the District of Columbia.”
In countless analyses of Carter’s staggering defeat in the face of opinion polling, several issues emerged just as relevant now as they were at the beginning of the 80s.
Noting that in the 30 years prior to the 1980 discrepancy, election results had largely concurred with pre-election polling, Stacks explained, the “spreading use of polls by the press and television has an important, if unmeasurable, effect on how voters perceive the candidates and the campaign, creating a kind of synergistic effect: the more a candidate rises in the polls, the more voters seem to take him seriously.”
Déjà vu, much?
Add the Internet’s undeniably critical role to the press and TV Stacks describes, when examining Donald Trump’s astronomically successful, albeit darkly negative, campaign — which had, at first, been taken less seriously than if Donald Duck had announced joining the race — and the demonstrative importance of polling in elections becomes markedly clear.
But even further, a parallel drawn by Victor Davis Hanson for Real Clear Politics between the 1980 and 2012 elections more closely — if not uncannily — relates to this year’s dogfight for the White House. Using the examples of Carter’s highly contentious economic policies and the Iran hostage crisis as a backdrop, Hanson noted, with emphasis added:
“Without a record to defend, Carter instead pounded Reagan as too ill-informed and too dangerous to be president.”
If you’ve even set foot in the United States over the past few months, that statement sounds like strategy ripped straight from the Hillary Clinton campaign playbook in its no holds barred assault on the character of the erratic demagogue, Trump.
Notably, in Carter’s case, that strategy cum character assassination — all comments on validity aside — didn’t exactly work out so well.
Hanson also aptly surmised Reagan’s bevy of gaffes — ordinarily the cause of a candidate’s downfall — were a moot point in conjunction with tepid support for Carter in the national vote. In fact, describing the incumbent’s support base as “divided and indifferent” certainly echoes the country’s ambivalence to Hillary Clinton’s scandal-plagued campaign — not to mention widespread rumors of electoral fraud, proven media complicity, and multiple ongoing criminal and corruption investigations.
Even recent opinion polls seem to mimic the period prior to the 1980 election, both in inexplicable public support for Clinton — how many of you have met actual Hillary fans? — and in discrepancies surrounding what her actual lead might be.
Consider polling numbers from the last few weeks, alone. Voters’ preference for either Clinton or Trump diverged so sharply depending on which outlet performed the survey, it appeared the answers might as well have been pulled from thin air.
In a general election match-up between the two presumptive nominees, on June 14, Bloomberg found Clinton with a whopping 12 percentage point lead over Trump, while Fox News yesterday handily tailored her lead to just 6 points. Quinnipiac University, on the other hand, released survey results Wednesday showing the two in a virtual dead heat, with Hillary’s lead at just 2 points.
In other words, polling in 2016 remains as much an arbitrary slave of propaganda as it had been in 1980.
“At the heart of the controversy is the fact that no published survey detected the Reagan landslide before it actually happened,” Stacks wrote. “Three weeks before the election, for example, TIME’s polling firm, Yankelovich, Skelly and White, produced a survey of 1,632 registered voters showing the race almost dead even, as did a private survey by Caddell. Two weeks later, a survey by CBS News and the New York Times showed about the same situation.”
Returning to the herd analogy, the problem with propagandic and arbitrary polls is that people tend to blindly lend them a degree of credence — they listen, and they follow each other’s lead. The Associated Press’ wholly unfounded crowning of Clinton as the presumptive nominee the day prior to California’s critical primary had the desired effect — likely dampening the spirits of already-dejected Sanders voters and keeping them from ‘bothering’ to vote at all.
But Clinton’s inordinately aggressive campaign might be forgetting the lessons Carter’s learned over three decades ago: people generally don’t respond well to arrogant posturing and negativity. And no matter what the polls claim about popular opinion, the people will ultimately decide in November who they favor — or who disgusts them less.
And in 2016, that matter is truly up for debate.
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