Actually, Election Day is Not “The Only Poll That Matters”

Tim Mak artfully skewers bad political writing at Politico. He nails 7 clichés and makes a sly joke by putting an eighth in his title (“very tired cliches”… are there fresh clichés out there with which the “tired” ones can be contrasted?).

Of the 7 stale horrors Mak critiques, I find particularly irritating “The only poll that matters is the one on election day”. This is usually a smug pundit’s put down to people who debate the meaning of the latest poll. It’s not only a cliché. It’s completely untrue.

As we have seen throughout this primary election cycle, polls drive media coverage, fundraising and candidate strategy. They also affect voters’ judgments about who is electable and who has momentum. The reality is that many, many polls matter, not least because they help determine who is still left standing on general election day to participate in “the only poll that matters”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

One thought on “Actually, Election Day is Not “The Only Poll That Matters””

  1. Polls do matter for the reasons you give, but not that much. The reason why this cliche is a cliche is that the underlying sentiment is a necessary corrective to the tendency of politicos to obsess over the latest opinion polls. In particular (based on my British experience – the existence of high-stakes mid-terms may make the US situation different)
    1) People commenting on mid-term opinion polls ignore the fact that unpopular governments always regain support in the run-up to the election
    2) People obsess over day-to-day changes in polls which are actually driven by sampling error, especially during the campaign season. In fact a good GOTV operation should have more data than a pollster, making it correct to ignore the latest polls.

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