Why we shouldn’t poll on the race

OK, I’m not the first to say this at all, but really. Let’s stop polling to see who is ahead in elections. Horse race polling, as it’s called, is a masturbatory exercise when done internally by candidates or parties and provides no valuable insight when done externally. Internal polls are either dismissed or used to make yourself feel better. They don’t help you win the race. Certainly, they’re not terribly reliable when they rely on IVR. Possibly, early on in the race, they might be used to assist with a decision about dropping out or continuing to run, but late in the race they’re largely pointless.

With respect to external polls, we live in the age of big data. Why are we still only publishing polls on who is ahead on a single issue.  Pollsters are certainly testing more… what do people think about the health care policies of a candidate, how are specific bills polling in terms of being understood and liked, what demographics are unengaged? All of these kinds of questions, asked regularly by pollsters, provide valuable insight into crafting policy, messaging, and creating programs to educate voters. These data are important. And valuable for people to see, not just some geek in a corner (like me).

Internal polling should be examining issues larger than the horse race: what’s important about platforms, how do people rank issues, what demographics have which concerns, what are you saying that is resonating, what are you saying that people don’t like or believe in.

Shaping policy based on polling data is sometimes considered putting your candidate up for sale, but in reality, it’s closer to grassroots democracy than anything else out there. The equally valid alternative is activism, where you use your candidacy and candidate messaging to promote world views and convince the grassroots of its validity. Either of these require polling data, but certainly not horse race polling.

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