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Reminder: Polls are only a snapshot of the moment

Priyanka from the Noun Project

Warning: With apologies in advance to the elderly and the coot community, I’m getting to be a weird old coot. The other day, I urged you to stop watching campaign commercials on TV, unless you like to be manipulated and deceived and treated like a sucker. (Another apology, to the sucker community.)

But I stand by the recommendation, and, although it’s a little late for this, I recommend the same for paying attention to polls. They change. They are a snapshot of a moment, not a prediction, although most of us who consume poll results treat them as predictions. Even if you believe in them, if you also take the margin of error seriously, they mostly show elections that could go either way.

And by the time the latest poll numbers reach you, they are out of date.

I’ll make an exception for the political professionals, who perhaps can’t really ignore the murky vision of the past and present (but not the future) represented by a fresh poll result by a competent pollster. They may have to use these estimates to make semi-educated guesses about how best to use their resources of time and effort (kinda like whether it is worth your time and effort to vote).

But the biggest problem with poll numbers (in my humble opinion) is that poll-pondering takes up time that would be better spent understanding the issues that face us, the various candidates ideas for dealing with those issues, deciding for ourselves what seems like the best approach and even, if you’re an outgoing sort, in dialogue with our friends, neighbors and fellow citizens about those issues and those proposed approaches to dealing with them.

Tomorrow is Election Day. Please vote (if you haven’t already early-voted). Urge your kids and your neighbors to vote. Vote as if your and your kids’ futures depended on it. Vote with your head and your heart. Vote for the candidates whom you believe will do the best job of governing your state and/or your nation, and then be prepared to deal with whatever happens.

What set me off on this particular rant? Since you asked, I’ll tell you.

Last week, I read a piece by the famed political numbers guru Nate Silver headlined: “Democrats Need A Systematic Polling Error To Win The Senate; And even that might not be enough.”

What’s a systematic polling error? Silver explains: “By a systematic polling error, I mean one that occurs in a correlated way across every race, or in certain groups of races — not merely errors that happen on a one-off basis.”

Read the piece if you want to know what that means. Personally, I don’t want to know.

Then on Sunday, Silver published a follow-up headlined, (maybe you guessed it):

Republicans Need A Systematic Polling Error To Win The House.” Silver is smart. He works hard at this. Perhaps that link will cause you to read the piece. I don’t recommend it, and I don’t plan to do so myself. I plan to vote, even if my ballot won’t be the deciding one in any race, even if the Dems are going to take the House and the Repubs are going to hold the Senate whether I vote or not.

Democracy, Churchill said in 1947, is “the worst form of government” that has ever been tried and will ever be tried “in this world of sin and woe …except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Just vote; vote as though your country depended on it. If nothing else, they give you an “I voted” sticker.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by David Koller on 11/05/2018 - 10:52 am.

    My daughter is helping to lead Augsburg College’s River Semester where they paddle down the Mississippi River from the Twin Cities to Memphis while taking classes. Her absentee ballot arrived at our home and we mailed it to her to pick up in the Quad Cities. She voted and mailed it back from a stop in St. Louis. I hope she is not alone in her desire and effort to vote for what is important to her.

  2. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 11/05/2018 - 01:00 pm.

    Don’t use the polls to determine if you should go vote or not. Polls can be and frequently are inaccurate. The only poll that counts is the vote count tomorrow night. This will be the true temperature of Minnesota and the US. If you don’t vote you can’t complain. Do your part and VOTE!

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/06/2018 - 05:46 am.

    For polls transparency comes in the small print. Don’t forget the margin of error, its says near the bottom of the report. The results we quote at the top are in fact a lot fuzzier than the numbers indicate. In close elections, all polls always say the same thing; it’s close and we don’t know what the heck will happen. And let’s not forget that polls are not predictive. With all the cash we spend on them, they don’t tell you what will happen on election day, all they do is tell you might what be going on when people aren’t voting, that is, the ,moments in time when it is not possible to check the results against an objective standard.

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