Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


digital-polling

(ILLUSTRATION: PAVEL IGNATOV/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The Use and Abuse of Polling in American Politics

• September 16, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(ILLUSTRATION: PAVEL IGNATOV/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Last week’s fight over PPP’s decision to hold back the results of a poll highlight how too many pollsters operating in the political sphere take an Ivory Tower attitude, disavowing responsibility for the consequences of their work.

An epic data nerd battle started last Wednesday over Twitter as critics lambasted Public Policy Polling (PPP) for withholding a weekend poll of voters in Pueblo County, Colorado.

The poll asked Pueblo County voters if they supported the legislative recall of State Senator Angela Giron, a moderate Democrat who supported stronger gun control legislation in her state. Giron’s Tuesday recall election and that of State Senate President John Morse, of Colorado Springs, marked the first legislative recalls of state lawmakers in Colorado’s 137-year history.

PPP found 54 percent of Pueblo’s registered voters overall favored Giron’s recall, while just 42 percent opposed it. Stranger yet, a whopping 33 percent of Democratic respondents said that they supported the recall. Consider that 47 percent of Pueblo’s registered voters are Democrats; just 23 percent are Republicans.

“In a district that Barack Obama won by almost 20 points I figured there was no way that could be right,” a post from PPP Director Tom Jensen explained on the firm’s website. Not only that, voters in Pueblo County support expanded background checks for gun buyers—68 to 27 percent—and are split on ammunition limits.

“VERY bad and unscientific practice for @ppppolls to suppress a polling result they didn’t believe/didn’t like.”

PPP suspected a design flaw. “This was the first legislative recall election in Colorado history. There’s been a lot of voter confusion,” Jensen noted. “That finding made me think that respondents may not have understood what they were being asked.” With no time to test a new survey design, they waited for the election results.

Tuesday’s election results matched the unpublished poll results closely: 56 percent for the recall, 44 percent against. On Wednesday morning, PPP posted the weekend poll with an explanation for the delay and analysis. Poll trolling commenced.

PPP is not a public agency, it’s not a non-profit, and it’s not under any obligation to anyone but its clients to release its polls. The group has nevertheless made a policy of being responsive to public interest and shown a commitment to transparency. That’s laudable, not lamentable.

But Nate Silver couldn’t help himself: the much-feted statistician behind FiveThirtyEight threw a punch at the pollsters over Twitter early Wednesday afternoon, announcing, “VERY bad and unscientific practice for @ppppolls to suppress a polling result they didn’t believe/didn’t like.” He linked to the PPP post explaining their delay in releasing the Giron poll results. In his next-day follow-up, Silver accused PPP of an “approach to polling [that] is extremely ad hoc.” He added, “that ad-hockery stems from a lack of appreciation/understanding for the statistical fundamentals behind polling.”

Taking the cue from golden-boy Silver, other commentators and analysts have piled on. Mark Blumenthal, founding editor of Pollster.com and senior polling editor for the Huffington Post, rallied behind Silver by early afternoon Wednesday. He launched into his criticisms of PPP with a quick disclaimer: “I’m late to this #NerdFight.” Thursday brought a particularly pointed piece by Nate Cohn, The New Republic’s self-professed amateur polling analyst. Blumenthal rehashed Cohn’s arguments in a post for the Huffington Post.

It’s worth noting that, with the exception of Blumenthal, few of PPP’s critics have polling chops; journalists and practitioners with experience rallied behind PPP.

Silver criticizing a polling outfit for being reckless and unscientific is like Lindsay Lohan accusing Meryl Streep of lacking work ethic. In November 2011, Silver declared that President Obama had just a 17 percent chance of re-election. I wrote about the many problems with Silver’s piece, statistical and ethical, for the Huffington Post: Silver conceded he used just 17 elections (the post-1944 presidential cycles), discounted the reliability of historical precedent, admitted the inconsistency of economic forecasts, and exposed prevailing methods for predicting electoral outcome through tables and rundowns as no better than hit-or-miss.

In one corner, we have a hitherto respected polling outfit that releases data regularly; in the other, a statistician who strung together a series of untrustworthy variables to land the cover of the New York Times Magazine, justifying the exercise by listing the many problems with his claim in the body of his piece.

Gawker’s Max Read noted, “nate silver is a funny guy to be knocking an organization for lack of transparency!” The Plum Line’s Greg Sargent asked Nate Silver, “are you alleging they ‘suppressed’ the result because they ‘didn’t like’ it?” That “[PPP-Nate Silver] dispute turns out to be pretty narrow,” Brian Beutler of Salon commented. I found myself drawn into the Twitter war on the topic: “If you mixed blue and yellow and got purple, would you announce it before re-examining your experiment?”

It’s refreshing to find that there are still pollsters who self-regulate. Too many pollsters operating in the political sphere take an Ivory Tower attitude, disavowing responsibility for the consequences of their polls and analyses. Their reasoning, as I understand it, is that, so long as they note the margin of error and any other qualifications in fine print, they’re on the up-and-up. On that, they’re wrong.

Pre-election polling can affect election results—even Nate Silver admits as much. We’ve got multiple theories to choose from, each of which carries some weight. Voters may want to choose the winner or vote with their friends, for example. Low-information voters may take a marketplace approach, relying on public opinion to champion the worthiest candidate.

When a pollster puts out a poll with a huge margin of error or a skewed sample frame, most coverage won’t note the fine print, even if the pollster does. The irresponsible pollster publishes the poll, content to slap on a sensational headline or else criticize media for doing so. The responsible pollster recognizes the dangers and acts to ensure that data isn’t misappropriated.

PPP identified a problematic result and held it until they could explain what happened, despite the fact that they could’ve gotten publicity from the polling before the election. They published the poll after the election knowing they might face sustained criticism for having held it back. That’s a commitment to science and public responsibility that we should welcome.

Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza
Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza attended Harvard College and Yale Law School. She has written on law and politics for the Nation, the Atlantic, Politico, the Daily Beast, and CNN, and co-authored James Carville’s 40 More Years. Follow her on Twitter @rpbp.

More From Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.