A certain group of 2016 political junkies might have one lasting image of Election Day — the New York Times needle’s shift from blue to deep red as early results came in, with Hillary Clinton’s chances of victory moving from 85 percent to her resounding electoral college defeat to President Donald Trump.
“I definitely think 2016 was not a banner year for polling, said Melissa Bell, the director of research for Global Strategy Group. “I think that’s obvious. We got it wrong. But I think that I’m really proud of the industry — especially my firm — in that we’ve been able to take an honest, reflective look at the work that was one, where mistakes were made, and corrections have been made moving forward.”
Bell and her former Benenson Strategies Group colleague Liz Dunne, now the North American lead on Uber’s research and insights team, sat down to talk about the future of polling on The Daily Line’s podcast, The Aldercast.
Part of the problem is a public misperception about what polls are meant to do; how they are read; and how pollsters, campaigns and the media communicate uncertainty. Here are five things we learned about the art and science of polling in our latest show:
- Garbage in, garbage out — Polls are doomed to fail without a solid knowledge of what the electorate will look like. That calculus changed after 2016 and as pollsters consider a potential blue wave in midterm elections. “If you don’t have a vision or some confidence about what Election Day is going to look like, or early vote or primaries, you’re sort of starting off on the wrong foot and then everything else you put behind it doesn’t really matter,” Dunne said.
- Polls shouldn’t tell the candidate what they want to hear — Pollsters want to deliver clear numbers, for better or worse. “A good pollster tells you what people like about you, what they like about your message, what you stand for and they also let you know what your vulnerabilities are, because you need to prepare,” Bell said. “It’s just connecting candidates where the already are, positions that they already have, stuff about them that’s already true.”
- Live telephone is still best practice, but online polling is emerging — “Things are changing, technology is changing. Right now the gold standard is still live interview telephone polling,” Bell says. “Five years from now, will the answer I give you be different to that question? Probably.” The trick with online polls is ensuring the person on the other side matches the right person in the voter file, they say.
- Be wary of TV focus groups — Focus groups can be a critical tool for campaigns to dive deep on issues, hear candidly from voters and reframe a candidate’s goals — but take the ones you see on television with a grain of salt. When done right, qualitative focus groups can be “a really important tool to bring everybody home,” Dunne says. But Bell warns – “if they’re on TV and people know that everything that they’re saying is now being broadcast to whatever size audience, we don’t actually know if what they’re saying is really what they think or value or if they’re giving you a socially desirable response, perhaps curating the discussion.”
- Look out for women — A 2018 trend to watch is more female candidates. A record number of women, for example, are running for the U.S. House and 28 women ran for statewide executive or U.S. congressional offices in the Illinois primary. But Dunne says we shouldn’t necessarily assume female candidates will get a 1 or 2 percentage point bump by dint of being a woman. “I think about how I voted at 22, 23 – ’Who’s the most Irish name on here and where are the women?’” Dunne says, but reflecting on her work for EMILY’s List, she notes, “folks aren’t voting — we don’t, nor should we, nor do voters think they’re voting for a candidate because they are a women. This is not being women candidate for a woman’s sake… they represent change.” More women are winning, Bell says because more women are running and are “great candidates that both men and women are voting for.”