by Michael Krieger, Liberty Blitzkrieg:
As I demonstrated in yesterday’s article, How Bloomberg Spun its Own Poll Data to Make Hillary Clinton Seem Inevitable, the media is intentionally spinning poll results at best, and completely fabricating them at worst.
While that’s bad enough, there are also some deep, fundamental problems which plague any attempts to conduct accurate polling in 2016. Cliff Zukin, professor of public policy and political science at Rutgers University and a past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, wrote about many of these issues in a 2015 New York Times opinion piece titled, What’s the Matter With Polling?
Here are a few excerpts:
Over the past two years, election polling has had some spectacular disasters. Several organizations tracking the 2014 midterm elections did not catch the Republican wave that led to strong majorities in both houses; polls in Israel badly underestimated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strength, and pollsters in Britain predicted a close election only to see the Conservatives win easily. What’s going on here? How much can we trust the polls as we head toward the 2016 elections?
Election polling is in near crisis, and we pollsters know. Two trends are driving the increasing unreliability of election and other polling in the United States: the growth of cellphones and the decline in people willing to answer surveys. Coupled, they have made high-quality research much more expensive to do, so there is less of it. This has opened the door for less scientifically based, less well-tested techniques. To top it off, a perennial election polling problem, how to identify “likely voters,” has become even thornier.
The second unsettling trend is the rapidly declining response rate. When I first started doing telephone surveys in New Jersey in the late 1970s, we considered an 80 percent response rate acceptable, and even then we worried if the 20 percent we missed were different in attitudes and behaviors than the 80 percent we got. Enter answering machines and other technologies. By 1997, Pew’s response rate was 36 percent, and the decline has accelerated. By 2014 the response rate had fallen to 8 percent. As Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com recently observed, “The problem is simple but daunting. The foundation of opinion research has historically been the ability to draw a random sample of the population. That’s become much harder to do.”
So what’s the solution for election polling? There isn’t one. Our old paradigm has broken down, and we haven’t figured out how to replace it. Political polling has gotten less accurate as a result, and it’s not going to be fixed in time for 2016. We’ll have to go through a period of experimentation to see what works, and how to better hit a moving target.
Those paying close attention to the 2016 election should exercise caution as they read the polls. Because of the high cost, the difficulty in locating the small number of voters who will actually turn out in primaries and the increasing reliance on non-probability Internet polls, you are likely to see a lot of conflicting numbers. To make matters still worse, the cellphone problem is more acute in states than it is at the national level, because area codes and exchanges often no longer respect state or congressional boundaries. Some polling organizations will move to sampling from voter lists, which will miss recently registered voters and campaigns’ efforts to mobilize them.
We are less sure how to conduct good survey research now than we were four years ago, and much less than eight years ago. And don’t look for too much help in what the polling aggregation sites may be offering. They, too, have been falling further off the track of late. It’s not their fault. They are only as good as the raw material they have to work with.
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