To be fair, its not just Ms. Selzer and the DesMoines Register/Bloomberg Politic’s Iowa Poll that is bad for democracy; its Langer Research Associates that does the polling for ABC News and the Washington Post, and Anderson Robbins Research and Shaw & Company Research who poll for FOX News, and every other pollster and news organization out there that endeavors to make predictive polling a newsworthy event that influences the outcome of an election.
As a former candidate who has done more than my fair share of polling, I completely understand and support the value of an internal poll – it helps a campaign to shape its message, or target demographics, or maybe throw in the towel. Just like a business that focus groups or polls consumers on its product; do our snack cakes taste sweet enough, does our new formula for diet soda have a funny after taste, what features do you most value on our widget… They have an intrinsic value in perfecting their product.
But the value of public polling is questionable when it actually influences the outcome of an election. The editorial page is to be used to influence the outcome. The news reporting may be, ok it is, biased enough to influence an outcome. I’ve come to expect that, as have most Americans. Its why Fox News exists after all – because conservatives where tired of the biased reporting they got from everyone else, and today they prefer the bias that Fox provides.
Polling, and the accompanying stories, are no different. Public polling about the state of a race does influence the outcome of said election. There have been scholarly paper and journals produced by university political science departments around the world for years that deal with the “bandwagon” or “contagion” effect. As economist David Rothschild wrote, “During elections, and major public policy events, much of the media coverage focuses on the “horse race,” or fluctuations in support for a candidate or policy. Reporting on public opinion not only affects support, but levels of engagement: donations, volunteering and turnout. These bandwagon effects can make polls self-fulfilling prophecies; the predictions of the polls come to pass because the polls not only measure public opinion but also influence public opinion and engagement.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-rothschild/understanding-how-polls-affect-voters_b_2009034.html)
We all know someone who thought their candidate of choice “isn’t going to win” and so they cast their vote for someone else, thereby ensuring their candidate will lose. And how do they know their candidate isn’t going to win? The polls of course.
“Polls affected strategic voting as some voters became less inclined to support a party (or candidate) whose chance of winning appeared slim.” from “Do Polls Influence the Vote” by Blais, Gidengil and Nevitte https://www.press.umich.edu/pdf/0472099213-ch11.pdf
That is why I believe the modern day polling is bad for democracy. I’m not alone in this thought. Although I’m not enamored with the comparison I’m about to make – sixteen of the countries in the European Union ban the reporting of election polls in the lead up to the election. Australia and a number of African countries also ban the reporting of polling for some period of time. But in America it’s a staple of how we make our decisions.
The pollsters don’t just tell us who we should, or should not cast our vote for; this election cycle they even tell us which candidates we are allowed to choose from. In truth, the networks determine which presidential candidate they allow on the debate stage – but as they’ve decided to leave it up to national polling, the pollsters are culpable as well. And since I’m assigning blame, I’ll throw in the national party apparatus as well. Why on earth the National Republican Party would allow ANY television network to decide who is on the presidential debate stage is beyond me – especially when they are using national polling (hello New York and California) when the voters are in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
What public value comes from public polling? For that matter, what journalistic value comes from public polling? Oh yes, it gives the reporters a few more column inches to say Candidate X is 5 percentage points ahead of Candidate Y; because that tells the reader soooo much about the positions held by Mr X or Ms Y. I suppose the intrepid reporter can write a few more words about why X leads Y; what demographic group they are falling behind in. But again, that’s just horse race journalism – a lazy excuse for putting words on the page. It actually tells the voter nothing about the merits of their policies. All horserace journalism does is further the “bandwagon” effect – don’t waste your vote regardless of the positions held.
The greatest irony in this election cycle so far is the more the elites in the press bemoan Donald Trump, the more they cover him, and the more they shepherd people onto his bandwagon.