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The Influence and Future of Political Polls

Using polls to track the horse race has always been a part of the political dialog in the national media, perhaps now more than ever.

But is there a risk in reporting too much on polls?

Doug Usher is a pollster and managing director at Purple Insights.

He’ll lead a discussion Tuesday night at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College on this topic.

He joined NHPR’s Morning Edition.

Do you see the media as being too reliant on polling in its news coverage?

I think what you’re seeing now is the media using polling whenever they can to fill out a story. I think sometimes that’s good and helpful, particularly in the closing days of the race, but sometimes you’re really missing some of the key elements in politics. Even as a pollster, I think the media uses polling just a little too much.

You also say the media can’t simply ignore polls. So what’s the right balance?

I think that as the race starts to finish up, as you get to the final few weeks, I think that polling plays an essential. I think early on, to give a sense of the shape of the race, it’s important as well. One of the problems though is that if you rely too much on polls, you treat it more as a scoreboard, rather than what’s actually happening in the political field.

Is the media doing enough to differentiate between good polling and bad polling, or to put results in context?

I think everybody has problems with that distinction. I think there are very good polls, and there are worse polls. But the sad fact is some of the polls with the best reputation get it wrong just as much of the polls that don’t have much of a reputation. I don’t know that it’s possible to distinguish for sure, but I do think the media can play a bit of a better role to say one pollster has more of a track record, while another pollster may be adding something new, but we may not know whether that’s a fully credible result.

Is it possible for widespread coverage of polls to actually shape public opinion or change the way people vote?

I think that’s the case, especially in races where people don’t know that much about what’s going on. Obviously, we’re focusing a lot on the presidential race, but I also think that people are paying enough attention and can learn enough about the other candidates so that they can think a little bit more broadly than what the polls say.

Doug Usher

I think the problem becomes more serious when you think of races lower down the ballot where people just don’t know anything about the candidates and they see a poll and see one candidate way up and say to themselves I don’t need to do any more research, I don’t need to think through this anymore because I know this person’s going to win.

We saw Gallup, perhaps the best-known name in polling, announce last fall that it would not be doing any polling of the 2016 presidential race.

What did you make of that decision and what does it say about the future of political polling?

Well, that decision was rooted in the fact that they got it absolutely wrong. Despite their terrific reputation, they did I would say a bad job in predicting outcomes, saying Romney was going to win, not by a landslide, but by a fair bit. And they said that throughout the fall. So I think they’ve decided they don’t want to stake their reputation on presidential polling, which they made a mistake on.

I think there’s always going to be a market for polls. There will always be a market for people trying to figure out what’s going on in the race. I think though it points to problems in a lot of political polling. And one of the issues that people get concerned about is as Gallup drops out of the race, Pew recently announced they were not going to do the horse race towards the end of the cycle, that what we’re going to be left with is lower quality polls and less ability to understand what’s going on in races.

What are the biggest challenges to the industry when it comes to getting accurate polling data?

There’s a very large challenge that’s been growing over the last 20 years, but has become more pronounced in the last five years, and that’s reaching voters in a way that’s random. It’s always been the case that some people were never reachable, but traditionally there have been enough folks that you could reach to account for the people you missed.

Today, I think there’s a real problem, particularly with younger voters, where the only people you can reach are systematically different from those you can’t reach, and so you can get results that are a little bit skewed. It’s that challenge that people are trying to address now through online polling, through cell phone polling, through different efforts of reaching folks that affects all political polling and polling in general. 

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Michael serves as NHPR's Program Director. Michael came to NHPR in 2012, working as the station's newscast producer/reporter. In 2015, he took on the role of Morning Edition producer. Michael worked for eight years at The Telegraph of Nashua, covering education and working as the metro editor.
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