Opinion

Polls are useless as predictors of elections

by Leo Tulchin

Can Donald Trump actually win?

Is Bernie Sanders even a candidate? Who would ever vote for another Bush? While tackling such queries, many a self-styled political “expert” will, with the slightest air of superiority, give reference to media’s own Delphic oracle: THE POLLS. Donald Trump can win the popular vote because THE POLLS said so. Sanders could kill Hillary with one liver-spotted hand tied behind his back! He’s beating her in this one POLL! Bush Bush Bush hurr durr blah blah POLL!

Poppycock. Hogwash. Pure and utter bunk. The time has come, my friends, to expose polls for what they truly are: reasonably accurate ranking methods which nonetheless fail to take into account economic and generational diversity. Do remember, fearless reader, that the majority of American polls are collected via landline surveys. The smarter among you have already figured out where I’m going with this, stopped reading, and are currently acting super smug and annoying to anyone willing to listen. Shut up and transfer to NYU or something.

As for everyone still here, landline use is declining at record rates. Many American households lack even a single home phone, relying solely on cell phones for communication. “But,” you might ponder, “The polls are still being taken! Some people still sit at home waiting for calls! What’s the issue?” And your reasoning wouldn’t be entirely unfounded. The catch is, most of these homebodies fall within a single demographic: the elderly.

The average nationwide poll tabulates the results of a few thousand calls. When taken as representative of a 300-million-plus nation (Census.gov as of 7/4/15), each conversation carries the weight of multitudes. According to the National Journal, over 85% of America’s elderly still have and use a landline. Roughly half of all other age groups have long since switched to cell phones. If even three out of ten respondents end up being elderly (a low-ball of an estimate), the elderly opinion still carries twice the impact in the polls that it would in the voting booth.

To make matters worse, the elderly political voice is quite polarized. As voters, they tend to fall into one of two categories: those who vote overwhelmingly Democrat because they enjoy having subsidized medical care, or those who vote overwhelmingly Republican because they’re traditionalists who grew up in the Baby-Boomer era of conservative dominance and/or are wealthy and wish to stay that way. Time Magazine states that between 45% and 55% of lower income households are cellphone-only; thus, it is more likely that the wealthy elderly receive the aforementioned polling emphasis.This assertion bears out in practice; Pew Research demonstrates that landline polls nearly always err in favor of conservative candidates when taken against their (all-too-rare) mail-based or wireless counterparts.

So, the next time a beautiful person on T.V. makes reference to those magical constructs known as Polls, Numbers, Data or Surveys, take it with a pinch of salt. Don’t bet the farm on whichever Tom, Dick or Clinton is currently taking the airwaves by storm. Don’t plan your move to Canada in preparation for President Trump. Just relax, imagine a wealthy grandparent answering every other survey phone call, and remember that polls are like adorable fuzzy puppies: fun to cling to for reassurance, but not always terrific at predicting elections.

September 18, 2015

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