Two weeks to go, the polls are a freak zone, yet I can’t resist checking them. When one looks good for my candidate, I feel great. When one looks bad, I spiral into the vortex of anxiety, then plunge into the cross tabs to ferret out anything that will foster optimism. Failing that, I study the set-up for reasons the sample could be biased. Omfg, I sound like a Fox News host. But I’ve discovered a few principles for poll-tracking that are helping me stay sane while keeping an eye on the numbers.
1. Disregard national polls. That is, a poll that uses a sample from people all over the US is really not telling me anything I need to know. Why? Ultimately, as veterans of the bruising 2000 presidential contest results may recall, the election is not decided by the popular vote, but by the Electoral College. Yes, that means someone who has not received the most votes can win the presidency (I’m talking to you, George W. Bush). Thus:
2. Check how many electoral college votes your candidate has in the bag, calculate how many he or she needs, and then track polls in battleground state polls only. Such a relief!
3. Remember that pollsters have their own biases. Some are conservative, some are liberal, some are paid by interested parties. The main thing to remember is that polls, like politicians, have their own point of view, no matter what they claim.
4. Notice the dates the polls were conducted to see whether certain events had transpired (debates, gaffes, etc.).
5. Did you know every pollster has their own definition of “likely voter”? Yup. So if the poll is of “registered voters,” it’s a little less squidgy, in my opinion, though it’s interesting to dig into weeds and find out how the “likely” voters were selected.
6. When getting poll news from pundits and cable hosts, always remember their ratings depend on maintaining a “horserace” narrative: if it’s not depicted as “neck-and-neck” they think people will stop watching. Thus astute viewers will notice that sometimes a one point gain will be described as a “surge,” while a five-point difference described as a “hanging on to his slim lead.” Just depends on what stokes the horserace fable. In a great piece recently, Matt Taibbi suggested it should be illegal to publish poll numbers—for one thing, he said, it would “force the media to actually cover the issues.” Something to think about, along with his other splendid idea to limit the campaign to six weeks.
7. Keep in mind that one reason tracking the polls is so nerve-wracking and seemingly volatile this year is that, as with following the legislative process during health care for instance, our ever-more-real-time communication technology means we are privy to moment-by-moment changes in ways we have never been exposed to before. I’m not sure this is useful.
8. There’s polling and then there’s voting. Answering a poll does not ascertain or insure that the respondent will vote, or has voted.
9. Only votes count, so take a looooooog break from poll tracking and make some phone calls or knock some doors. At this stage of the race, polls mean nothing. The GOTV (Get Out The Vote) ground game means everything.