Friday, March 04, 2016

What the Polls Are Saying

Was thinking a little today about the preponderance of polls that tend to dominate the reporting about the ongoing presidential race. It’s almost claustrophobic, with the only thing seeming to cut through the constant stream numbers being the next outrageous thing a candidate (usually the current GOP frontrunner) says or does.

In fact, after that outrageous thing gets spun through the usual news cycle a few dozen times, the focus immediately returns to those numbers again and how they may or may not have changed as a result. Then come the primaries and caucuses, with even the reporting of actual voting results being prefaced by unending references to exit polls and still more polls appended afterwards.

Of course, there’s the unthinking reporting of poll numbers (which we most often see), then there are more careful examinations of what those numbers actually mean. Like has happened with the rise of “analytics” in sports -- and poker -- some of the analyses of polls have become increasingly sophisticated, occasionally resulting in uncannily accurate predictions of how the voting will go (although surprises still do happen).

I’ll admit I find myself checking in over at FiveThirtyEight frequently, especially on those evenings when there are primaries or caucuses, just to see how Nate Silver et al. are further crunching the numbers as they arrive. FiveThirtyEight helps us judge particular polls’ credence as well as how to sort through all of the data in a way that helps show its actual relevance.

That said, the constant focus on polls tends to eclipse actual discussion of candidates and their various positions and substantive issues, operating like a kind of virtual (and ongoing) scoreboard alongside the delegate tallies. To borrow Global Poker Index CEO Alex Dreyfus’s favorite word, it works to “sportify” the presidential race, or at least making it even more like a sporting event than has been the case in past decades.

Polls become a shorthand for both reporters and voters, fitting easily within 140 characters or as a colorful, eye-catching graph and standing for more involved consideration, and becoming something to cheer or fret over. You know, now that football season is over.

Photo: Voter polling questionnaire on display at the Smithsonian Institution, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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