Missing the Mark?

KOLD Investigates: next steps for political polling
KOLD News 6-6:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Dec. 7, 2022 at 6:37 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) -

The 2016 and 2020 elections shook public faith in polling, after widespread miscalculations. Some pundits even declared the death of political polls. That drove big changes in the industry leading up to the 2022 midterm.

”Questions about polling, is it dying...I’m not buying it one bit,” said Mike Noble, Chief of Research and Managing Partner at OH Predictive Insights in Phoenix.

Pollsters are making their case, after what many political scientists call the most accurate results in several cycles.

“The polls were much more accurate than they were in 2020 or 2018 or 2016,” said Larry Sabato, founder of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

But there are detractors, as we’ve seen in Arizona.

”Folks kind of glom on to what they want to believe. A lot of people told me after the election, ‘I can’t believe this race was so close.’ I’m like - why?” Noble said.

The Arizona pollster blames a new glut of partisan polls for creating what he calls a “red mirage,” while his and other non-partisan polling companies anticipated very tight races.

“A lot of decisions get made based on polls, yet polls get demonized, and I think it’s just because of a couple bad actors,” Noble said.

There are also fewer polls than there used to be. Analysis site FiveThirtyEight reports 12 years ago, there were about 17 hundred polls for senate, house, and governor between May and Late October. This midterm saw about half of that.

Many of the most reliable names in polling, such as Gallup, have left so-called “horserace” polling. The price of being wrong is high. So is the price of conducting polls. And, it’s getting harder to collect a sample that really represents voters. Noble’s team, for instance, has a 56-step process for every poll it does.

“I think it’s adapt or die,” said Noble. “But I think it’s very exciting for this next generation of public opinion.”

That pivot from decades of phone polling - to text and online - had to happen fast to reach younger voters, who had a big impact this election.

”Even though they’re a smaller group, the huge disparity of them going Democratic offset the Republican gains,” Noble said.

One nagging peril of polling: low response from certain groups, such as Hispanic/Latino voters.

”They very much get treated like a monolithic group - and they’re far more nuanced,” said Noble.

Some pollsters simply account for those they think are not responding, like Trump voters, underrepresented in 2016 and 2020 polls. That practice can lead to bias and inaccuracies.

”They disproportionately do not trust the media and do not trust polls - and they won’t participate in them,” Sabato said.

He also points out, there were fewer non-partisan polls. Sabato estimates 80 midterm polls came from right-leaning groups, 20 from left-leaning ones.

“They’re put out there to sell a particular party a particular candidate a particular ideological line. so you’re not getting the full story,” Sabato said.

If they’re so troublesome, do we even need political polls?

Noble says yes, because they help government better serve communities by knowing what we do and don’t want.

“It’s the people. The ultimate check and balance between those who are in power and those who aren’t in power,” he said.

Is there an alternative?

“I would not object at all to - not abolishing polling - but to having it supplement other forms of analysis,” Saboto said.

His suggestions: Look to trusted sources for context. Look for transparency. Voters shouldn’t take polls at face value, but should take them.

”Their voice is important. Each person polled is actually standing for thousands, and in the national sense, hundreds of thousands. That oughta give you a sense of power,” Sabato said.