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Jul. 15 2009 - 2:44 pm | 8 views | 1 recommendation | 3 comments

Get Rid of Polls?

Survey sampling

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Over at The Atlantic, Conor Clarke makes the case for getting rid of polls. For reasons ranging from the First Amendment to It’s Not Going To Happen, I wouldn’t put too much stock in the idea. But the logic behind it should ring true to Neuroworld readers, familiar with the profound idiocy at the heart of the human animal:

[P]erhaps greatest concern: the outcome of one poll can affect future polls and behavior. As behavioral scientists and economists are fond of pointing out–in books like Nudge and Predictably Irrational–popular behavior can snowball. Public-health campaigns emphasizing how few teenagers smoke are more effective in deterring teen smoking than those that emphasize lung cancer or bad breath. Likewise, the perception that a candidate or political position is popular today will make the candidate or position more popular in the future. As Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler put it in Nudge, “Nothing is worse than a perception that voters are leaving a candidate in droves.” Voters should be free to switch allegiances whenever they want, but they should do so for substantive reasons, not because they’re following the flock.

Most everyone acknowledges the problem with polls when it comes to Election Day: exit polls are frowned upon and in some cases banned, because early ones have been shown to influence the behavior of people who haven’t yet made their way to the voting booths. If we can see that it’s a problem on Election Day, shouldn’t we acknowledge that it’s a problem the rest of the year as well?

Bandwagon voting exists and has been observed in the lab and in the wild (the wild of actual elections, that is). The question one might ask, then, is whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Let me argue the case for good.

Why would we worry about the bandwagon effect? Let’s start with “It’s anti-democratic.” People are voting for candidates they otherwise wouldn’t vote for. But, in a case where bandwagon voting takes hold, who cares? It’s not likely to take hold in an extremely close election (polls at 47-45, for instance), so it’s not going to change the results of an extremely close election. In the case of a landslide, it could make the landslide bigger. But, in that case, who cares?

As opposed to thwarting democracy, I’d say polling keeps us on the same page. It lets us know what our fellow shaved monkeys are thinking. And it gives us time to adjust our expectations when we support a losing candidate or issue.

Is the Iranian system better, where there’s no polling anyone can trust, you hold the election, and then you have no idea if the result matches up to what the reality should be? If there had been no polling in 2004, and Bush beat Kerry by a small margin, would Democrats have accepted the result and gone on with their lives? Or would there have been riots from protesters alleging election fraud? Sure, some nuts still say Ohio was stolen; but the result matched up generally with pre-election polling (not exit polling, which was way off, but pre-election polls that had Bush slightly ahead).

Overall, while polling has its downsides, it keeps the system stable. And that’s a good thing.


2 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 3 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    For those of us who follow elections the way some guys follow football all I can say is “back off, leave our polls alone”.

  2. collapse expand

    I am in Brian’s court on this one…but fivethirtyeight.com was so spot on the last election was almost anticlimactic…I found myself wanting to bet on how accurate they could be.

  3. collapse expand
    deleted account

    It’s interesting to see evidence for the idea that polls influence outcomes, but this data point…

    “Public-health campaigns emphasizing how few teenagers smoke are more effective in deterring teen smoking than those that emphasize lung cancer or bad breath.”

    … would’ve come from surveys. And a survey is basically another name for a poll. So in effect, Clarke is trying to prove the polls are bad by using data from polls. Isn’t that some sort of self-contradiction?

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

    These days, I'm interested in humanity's ever-expanding understanding of its own irrationality. Hence, this blog.

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