Four Out of Four Pollsters Lack a Clue

Thursday evening at the University of Virginia four expert pollsters performed a dramatic act of self-experimentation in which they demonstrated that, using a map and two hands, they would still be incapable of finding their ass.

The brave participants included Glenn Bolger who promotes and does polling for Republican senators, Congress members, and governors at Public Opinion Strategies; Courtney Kennedy who is director of survey research at Pew Research Center; Mark Mellman who promotes and does polling for Democratic senators, Congress members, and governors; and Doug Usher who works for Purple Insights and supports the two political parties the name suggests.

The event was put on by the Center for Politics which was trying to hand out stickers that said “Politics is a good thing.” I didn’t see anyone accept one. The event had been titled “How Polls Influence Public Opinion,” which was why I went. But the moderator, Kyle Kondik, and the four panelists never mentioned that topic. During Q&A someone in the audience asked about it, and was given the answer: Oh, no, polls don’t influence the public.

Also, I discovered, the public doesn’t influence pollsters. This gang (Usher in particular) described Senator Bernie Sanders as someone who had succeeded with an issue that no one would ever have expected, namely breaking up the big banks. You know who would have expected that issue to succeed? Anyone who had read any polls, or who saw the Occupy movement, or who talked to people, or who read history, or who watched 99 Homes.

The four Demoplicans similarly described Sanders as a person whom nobody would ever have expected to succeed as the messenger of that unexpected issue. You know who would have expected Sanders to succeed? Anyone who followed his high ranking in popularity in Congress and the Senate in the polls, or who watched the reaction to his filibuster.

Despite noting Sander’s inexplicable success, these four (Bolger in particular) talked entirely as if the Democratic presidential nomination were guaranteed for Hillary Clinton. The giant crowds, the polls, the Iowa and New Hampshire results: it’s as if none of that exists in the minds of these Washingtonians who emerged from the Beltway for this event, two of them apparently getting lost or just stuck in traffic in the process. Bolger did predict that Hillary’s victory might be only due to the votes of the superdelegates and predicted a spot of trouble for the Democrats as a result.

Are any of these pollsters aware of what the polls are showing? Are they aware that the public sees and is in fact influenced by such polling results? Bizarrely, they give no indication of such awareness. I think it was Bolger again who said that Donald Trump’s amazingly high polling in the area of people who view him negatively makes him very unlikely to win a general election. Bolger said the only Democrat who could lose to some of the non-Trump Republicans would be Hillary Clinton because of her quite high negatives. Bolger then made clear that in saying that Clinton was the only Democrat who could lose, he was contrasting her with imaginary Democrats not actually in the race, but he added parenthetically that of course Bernie Sanders could lose too. Bolger didn’t explain why that would be, perhaps because his argument would have fallen apart if he’d looked at any polls.

Mellman pushed on the audience Thursday evening the idea that Bernie Sanders voters would simply back Hillary Clinton if she were nominated. He may have gotten that idea (he didn’t say) from articles like the one in the USA Today that said “Most Bernie Sanders voters OK with Hillary Clinton winning.” That was the headline, but if you read the article you discovered the claim that 59% of Sanders’ supporters would “be OK” with Clinton winning. Think about that for a minute. If Clinton and Sanders split the Democratic Party, and Clinton wins (or “wins” with superdelegates), and then 41% of Sanders’ people hit the road because they will not support her, that’s a loss of 20.5% of her voters. Goodbye Clinton dynasty! The funny thing is that the poll on which the story was supposedly based never asked the question reported on. What it asked was: “How would you feel if Hillary Clinton became the Democratic nominee – enthusiastic, satisfied, dissatisfied, or upset?”

Personally, I wouldn’t wait, I’d be dissatisfied and upset right away with the poll that asked that question and not a similar question about Bernie Sanders. This is how polling influences public opinion. What percentage of Hillary voters would “be OK” with a Sanders nomination? Who the hell knows! Therefore it’s not a news story.

Presumably those who answered “enthusiastic” or “satisfied” were interpreted as “being OK” with a Clinton nomination, but not one person was ever actually asked “Would you support Clinton in the general election no matter whom she runs against?”

During the Q&A I snuck in two questions. Usher had defended extensive reporting on polls because, he said, the alternative would be reporting on who has the most money or lawn signs. Mellman had said that many voters in Nevada are still unaware that Hillary Clinton has an opponent. So, I asked whether it wouldn’t be better to report on who the candidates are and what they would do if elected. To that, Mellman gave the usual response that nobody really wants substantive reporting, and Usher replied, I kid you not, that because there are limitless websites showing where the candidates stand there’s no need for such stuff on TV or in newspapers.

But, of course, information that doesn’t exist doesn’t appear on websites. What basic outline of a budget would they propose? Would military spending rise or fall? Should media monopolies be broken up as well as banks? Should torturers finally be prosecuted? Should NAFTA be ended? Should foreign aid be increased? Would they end the use of signing statements to rewrite laws? Who knows!

(Someone has figured out that Ted Cruz wants to add $140 billion per year to military spending, but how do you compare that to the other candidates who’ve never been asked and never volunteered their own figure?)

I also asked this question: Usually popularity in the polls follows right behind media coverage while the media pretends the reverse is going on. But Sanders got almost no coverage and shot up in the polls and then still got very little coverage. Is this as unprecedented as I think? How has it happened? To that, Mellman changed the subject from polls to primaries and said that Jimmy Carter was given coverage as a reward for winning Iowa. My question remains unanswered.

Kennedy said that polls show that trust in the U.S. government is at an all-time low. I can’t imagine why.

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