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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why Early Polls Reflect Voter Disinterest, More Than Who is Really Leading

In his National Journal article, “Forget the 2016 Polls: Nobody Knows Anything Yet,” S.V. Dáte writes, “At the same point in the 2012 race, just over two months be­fore the Iowa caucuses, pizza-chain ex­ec­ut­ive Her­man Cain had a clear lead in Iowa, while even­tu­al winner Rick San­tor­um was at 4 per­cent.”
Citing “large per­cent­ages of re­spond­ents who say they still have not settled on a can­did­ate,” Dáte notes some interesting technical reasons why early polling is less influential:

Layered onto this fun­da­ment­al lack of deep voter in­terest are the lo­gist­ic­al dif­fi­culties in mod­ern polit­ic­al polling. More and more Amer­ic­ans do not have home land­lines any­more, only cell phones. And those num­bers, by law, must be manu­ally dialed, driv­ing up costs. The ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans, re­gard­less of what type of phone they have, do not an­swer in­com­ing num­bers they don’t re­cog­nize. These factors pro­duce a re­sponse rate in sur­veys of 8 per­cent, com­pared to 80 per­cent or so a few dec­ades ago.
And then there are the sample sizes, of­ten so small that the mar­gins of er­ror are lar­ger than the spreads among a host of can­did­ates. An ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post poll re­leased this week­end had Trump lead­ing na­tion­ally with 32 per­cent, Car­son in second at 22 per­cent, and then 10 can­did­ates ran­ging from Sen. Marco Ru­bio at 11 per­cent down to Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham and former Sen. Rick San­tor­um at 1 per­cent.
But be­cause the sample size of 423 Re­pub­lic­an re­spond­ents pro­duces a 5.5-point mar­gin of er­ror, those 10 can­did­ates from Ru­bio to San­tor­um were stat­ist­ic­ally tied.
John Dick, founder of the polling and re­search firm Civic Sci­ence, said such de­pend­ence on ob­vi­ously im­pre­cise sur­veys is ac­tu­ally do­ing voters a dis­ser­vice. “It is cat­egor­ic­ally ir­re­spons­ible, in my opin­ion,” Dick said.

As with church attendance and charitable contributions, notes Dáte, there is also the tendency of too many poll respondents to say they will vote, but don’t show up at the polls on election day. “A Fox News poll re­leased on Sunday sim­il­arly had 79 per­cent of re­spond­ents say­ing they are likely to vote…If 77 or 79 per­cent of re­gistered voters truly wind up vot­ing in their primar­ies, it would shat­ter turnout re­cords across the coun­try.”
The early polls are consequential in other ways. Dáte acknowledges the power of early polls in attracting contributions and in selecting those who get to participate in televised debates, which has played a significant role in the subsequent allocation of media attention.
The polls are of interest to the candidates themselves as a way to pinpoint weaknesses with different demographic groups, define the popularity of policy positions and geographic vulnerabilities. But for those following political campaigns, using the polls to determine who is actually leading the horserace is pretty much a waste of time.

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