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Why we shouldn’t care so much about polls — even if we can’t stop looking at them

A cautionary tale about polling, from “Dewey Defeats Truman” to “Why Trump Can’t win.”

Gov. Scott Walker and Donald Trump chatting during a commercial break at the Aug. 6 Republican presidential candidates debate.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

First a word about why we should pay less attention to polls and then some fresh poll numbers and finally a little historical anecdote.

Political junkies like me can’t help looking at poll stories. We should spend less time on them and we should definitely learn to treat them as something less than actual information worth knowing, kind of like the 10th day in the 10-day weather forecast, which have about as much chance of being right as a “fact” told by Michele Bachmann.

We were told, based on polls, that Scott Walker was leading the huge Republican field in Iowa and therefore had to be comsidered as among the serious candidates for the nomation. He soon became the first candidate to drop out of the race. Was that because the polls were “wrong.” Not really. It was evanescent. It was based on asking people who had not really formed a firm intention to even attend a caucus let alone whom they would support if they did what they would do six months later if they happened to go and hadn’t changed their minds about whom to support.

When Donald Trump first emerged as the poll leader in the Republican field, Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post wrote a piece headlined “Why no one should take Donald Trump seriously in one simple chart.” The simple chart showed that, although Trump was then on top of the field when Republicans were asked who was their first choice for the nomination, only 23 percent of Republicans viewed him “favorably” compared to  65 percent of Republicans had an unfavorable view of him. As the field narrows, Cillizza reasonably argued, Republicans will be redistributed among the remaining candidates and they will choose from among those whom they view favorably. Trump had no upside because almost everyone who didn’t already support him viewed him unfavorably. Reasonable, right?

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Sort of, but not really, as Cillizza honorably conceded in a follow-up post five weeks later headlined “Boy was I wrong about Donald Trump. Here’s why.” The short version of “here’s why” is that Trump’s negative number among Republicans had dropped from 65 percent to 40 percent and the portion that viewed him favorably had shot up from 23 to 57. If your “ceiling” is 57 percent of Republicans, you obviously might end up as the nominee. The first poll asked people who hadn’t really formed an impression of Trump. I wouldn’t want to oversell the bankability of the second poll either. But it was enough to induce Cillizza to bravely admit error. (Personally, I’ve taken a vow to stop speculating on how the Trump story will turn out.)

Pardon the sports analogy but: The score at the end of the second inning of a baseball game doesn’t “predict” the outcome of the game. But at least it’s a real score. The runs that have been scored to that point will stay scored. The runs can’t change their mind and be transferred to the other team. You can’t say that about poll respondents’ current feelings about a candidate in a far-off contest.

But we — at least us political junkies — can’t stop looking. The guys in charge of putting out fresh political “news” at NBC, which polls in partnership with the Wall Street Journal, led today’s edition of “First Read” with “Bad News for the GOP and for Hillary Clinton.” It begins:

“With just over 13 months until Election Day 2016, the Republican Party should be sitting pretty. The Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, has seen her popularity drop considerably in the new NBC/WSJ poll. What’s more, 62% believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, which isn’t good news for the party holding the White House. And President Obama’s approval rating — at 47 percent — isn’t bad, but it’s not great, either. But here is the challenge for the GOP: Almost every other indicator in the poll is a real problem for the party. For starters, the Republican Party (29%-45% fav/unfav rating) is significantly more unpopular than the Democratic Party (41%-35%). Its current presidential frontrunner, Donald Trump, is the most unpopular figure in the entire poll. In addition, GOP voters are in revolt against their own leaders: 72% are dissatisfied with House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (which helps explain why Boehner is stepping down from his job). And Republicans are in a MUCH different place than Democrats and independents on issues like abortion, gay rights, and race.”

Lastly, when I was working up a recent piece about the history of presidential elections, I meant to include a section on polling (but it got too long, so I dropped it). But I was curious about the most famous “polling disaster of all time,” the polling on the 1948 Harry Truman-Thomas Dewey race that lead to the famous picture of victorious President Harry Truman holding up the Chicago Tribune with a banner headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

There were several reasons for the blunder, but one of the big ones was that the professional pollsters generally believed that few voters changed their minds in the last two weeks — about whom they supported or about whether to vote. As a result, Gallup, for one (but I gather this was true of other polling operations), stopped sampling 10 days before the election.

Now (as one who has sat in a newsroom on many Election Days awaiting results would know) the polling never stops and voters leaving the polls are asked for whom they voted to see how it matches with the latest round of phone or internet polling.