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Hey pollsters, maybe it’s time for a career change

‘The polling industry is a wreck, and should be blown up,’ says one pundit.


It’s everyone’s nightmare scenario: an electoral stalemate; two men all but claiming the presidency; and a likely legal battle that may extend into December.

So much is yet uncertain as the final ballots are counted, and as some jurisdictions prepare to pause counting while the courts have their say. Through the frustrating murkiness, however, there are already a number of major headline stories to take out of the 2020 US election. One of the biggest is surely the abject failure of the polling industry. Again.

“The polling industry is a wreck, and should be blown up,” writes Politico.

“To all the pollsters out there: you have no idea what you’re doing,” declared Republican Senator Lindsay Graham.

Graham fended off South Carolina challenger Jamie Harrison, who in some polls edged in front of Graham and spent US$109m on the race that polls told him he could win. Instead, Harrison ended up losing by 11 points.

Graham wasn’t the only Republican Senator to enjoy an unforeseen landslide. There wasn’t a single major poll that tipped Susan Collins to win a Senate seat in Maine. Her Democrat challenger Sarah Gideon raised $70m for the upset, but lost the race by 9 points.

By most measures, the Democrats were heavy favourites to flip the Senate. Instead, Republicans are now better placed to lead the Senate than before Tuesday’s race.

The Democrat party was likewise expected to pick up anywhere from five to 15 seats in the House. In fact, the Republicans outperformed them there too, stealing a handful of seats to put themselves in an extremely powerful minority, regardless of the eventual White House result.

The award-winning FiveThirtyEight is regarded by many as the best authority on American political contests because of its polling aggregation methods. Going into Tuesday, FiveThirtyEight gave the Democrats a 72 percent chance of sweeping both houses of Congress and the presidency in a great “blue wave”. They tipped Joe Biden as the 90 percent favourite. How could they get it so wrong?

The site was just as dismal on state races. They gave Trump only the narrowest of leads in both Texas and Ohio, states that Trump won by a convincing 6 and 8 percentage points respectively. Biden was the clear favourite in Florida, but lost the perennial swing state by 3.5 points. Wisconsin—which now faces a recount after a razor-thin count—was supposed to be a thumping Biden win: 95 percent likely, according to FiveThirtyEight. A full 17 points according to the Washington Post.

I have a confession to make. In the weeks leading up to the election, there were only two polling outlets that I paid any attention to: Rasmussen and Trafalgar. I had a straightforward reason for this. While most pollsters missed Trump’s 2016 victory, they were impressively close in their predictions.

The reason for this is that they were aware of the “shy Trump voter” phenomenon, and had devised methods to account for this. Trafalgar accurately foresaw a 2016 Trump win in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan. Rasmussen came to within one point of predicting the popular vote, performing better than any other outlet according to RealClearPolitics.

And sure enough, both predicted a neck-and-neck race this year. Rasmussen correctly picked up on a growing Black and Latino vote for Trump, and Presidential approval ratings in the high 40s and low 50s during the final weeks of the campaign. Trafalgar tipped Trump to win the White House with an electoral college total in the high 270s to low 280s.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight fame dismissed both polling outlets as “crazy”—though he’s probably eating his words now.

As early as 2015, The New York Times drew attention to what they called a “crisis” in the polling industry. They cited several reasons; among them the growth of cellphones, a decline in the willingness of people to answer surveys, and the difficulty of identifying likely voters as opposed to registered voters.

As recently highlighted by Michael Cook, when The New York Times wildly missed the Trump victory in 2016, they searched their hearts and promised to “report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you.” Of course, that didn’t last too long: all 15 of their opinion columnists decried Trump in unison over the weekend.

While the Times was doubtless correct about the social challenges facing pollsters, they missed the bigger picture. Just like the polling outlets, they were blinkered—only able to see what they wanted to see, and dismissing all else. Cognitive bias is a powerful phenomenon, and we’re all subject to it.

For four years, the liberal coastal elites—whether in statistics or journalism—have told themselves the same, tired “Orange Man Bad” story, unable to fathom that other Americans felt differently and had long ago tuned out.

As long as they are living in their own world, they will miss what half the country really thinks. And that’s to everyone’s detriment.

This content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.

Kurt Mahlburg

Kurt Mahlburg is a teacher, freelance writer, and the Features Editor of the Canberra Declaration. He contributes regularly at the Spectator Australia, Caldron Pool and The Good Sauce. He hosts his own… 

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EDITORS NOTE: This MercatorNet column is republished with permission. All rights reserved.

Skewed Immigration Polls May Skewer Americans

Figures don’t lie but liars can figure.

The 24 hour news cycle has driven the demand for more “talking heads” that can appear on news programs to provide information, perspectives and, all too often (unfortunately), utter nonsense.

Computer programmers have an acronym, GIGO (Garbage-In, Garbage-Out), that essentially says, ‘if you begin with wrong information the results will be no less flawed’: This is the problem with polls.

Surveys and polls are not new, but today nearly every industry depends on polls, surveys and focus groups to make decisions about how to conduct business to maximize the potential for success.

Consequently, our political leaders often stake out or modify their positions on issues to parallel what pollsters claimrepresents the concerns of likely voters.

When the pollsters get it wrong, the people who make decisions based on those polls will also–of necessity–get it wrong.

A person running from a mob is not leading that mob. He is simply running for his life. This is, all too often, what passes for “leadership” in America today. This is why so many candidates are said to “waffle,” going back and forth on their stated positions on critical issues. They are guiding their positions on the results of polls that may not even be providing accurate information.

Politicians often assume positions out of a fear of losing votes and, hence, an election. Instead of being true leaders who have a clear vision and, through demonstration of their leadership, convince people to vote for their vision, they chase voters―pandering to what they think voters want.

I have come to refer such political “leaders” as “human metronomes” or “human weathervanes.” Not unlike tumbleweeds, they go in the direction that perceived public opinion takes them.

All too often, the polls, upon which so many decisions are made, are fatally flawed.

Generally, polling surveys include a list of issues and the respondent is supposed to either select the one issue of greatest concern or to arrange the issues according to the degree to which they are of greatest concern.

The problem with multiple choice questions is that they prevent those responding to the questions consideration for all of the real-world possibilities.

I recently received a questionnaire that asked me to pick the number one concern I have. It included the threat of terrorism, the economic crisis, healthcare concerns and immigration.

The survey only permitted me to make one selection. The problem is that immigration is actually a major component in all of the other issues.

However, since the survey does not permit the participant to check off more than one item on the list of issues of greatest concern, anyone who was most concerned about terrorism would likely select the threat of terrorism as his/her most serious concern. Similarly, participants in the survey who may be concerned about losing their jobs might select the economic crisis as being their greatest concern. However, many Americans have lost their jobs to foreign workers and this fact may be an important issue for respondents, but the way that the survey is structured, immigration would not be selected.

When all of the results are tallied by the polling company, immigration may well be on the bottom of a list of issues, notwithstanding the fact that immigration is actually the most important issue on that list because it is a major factor in nearly every other issue that concerns Americans.

Today, understandably, we are told the majority of Americans are most concerned about the threat of a terror attack. Indeed, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, and other high-ranking members of the U.S. intelligence community have publicly stated that ISIS plans to carry out deadly terror attacks inside the United States this year. Consider the February 9, 2016 CNN report, “Top intelligence official: ISIS to attempt U.S. attacks this year.”

That troubling report included this excerpt:

Clapper warned that ISIS and its eight branches were the No. 1 terrorist threat, and that it was using the refugee exodus from violence in Iraq and Syria to hide among innocent civilians in order to reach other countries.

Clapper said ISIS was “taking advantage of the torrent of migrants to insert operatives into that flow,” adding that they were “pretty skilled at phony passports so they can travel ostensibly as legitimate travelers.”

ISIS fighters have reportedly seized Syrian passport facilities with machines capable of manufacturing passports.

The testimony follows the director of National Intelligence’s release of the “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community.”

The assessment notes that “approximately five dozen” ISIS-linked people were arrested in the U.S. during 2015.

Entry of terrorists into the United States is indisputably the domain of immigration.

Additionally, the FBI has reported that it has multiple terror investigations ongoing in all 50 states.

The 9/11 Commission determined that multitudes of failures of the immigration system enabled not only the 19 terrorists who carried out the hijackings and attacks of September 11, 2001, but other terrorists as well to enter the United States and embed themselves. Indeed, since the 9/11 Commission Report was published, a series of additional terror attacks were carried out in the United States by aliens who gamed the visa process and/or the immigration system to acquire political asylum, lawful immigrant status and even United States citizenship.

The bottom line is that successfully combating terrorism absolutely requires that our immigration system operates effectively to prevent terrorists from entering the United States in the first place. Effective immigration enforcement can also thwart the efforts of terrorists who seek to embed themselves in our country as they go about their deadly preparations. However, this nexus between immigration and national security is not a component of the polls.

The economy is always a key issue for American voters. In fact, when Bill Clinton first ran for President, it was reported that his campaign offices had posted a simple sign in the walls of those offices that stated simply, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Consider how many Americans have lost their jobs to foreign workers, including within high-tech industries who have been welcomed into the United States with H-1B visas and other such visas.

Again, immigration is a critical component.

All too often, because most people are conformists and eager to “go along to get along,” they form their opinions on the basis of polls. Few people have the guts to swim against the tide of public opinion. If there is “safety in numbers,” then it is far safer to engage in “group think” and jump on the “bandwagon” rather than to go against popular opinion.

National Geographic has been airing a series known as “Brain Games” that explores how the human mind functions. Recently, an episode aired that is well worth watching, “Peer Pressure.” In this program, people actually decided to follow the majority even when their own instincts told them that the majority was getting it wrong.

Another episode of Brain Games, “Power of Persuasion,” provided insight into how easy it is to manipulate decisions people make, convincing them to modify their positions to coincide with what they believe the majority accepted.

However, when the findings of polls are at odds with the demands of major campaign contributors, all too many politicians seek to create illusions that they are meeting the demands of the majority of constituents while making certain that their contributors are getting what they are paying for.

Even when immigration is seen as a major factor in the polls, politicians create illusions by spending huge sums of taxpayer money on worthless programs such as deploying unmanned drones along the border rather than manned Border Patrol helicopters. Government studies have shown that drones are very costly but virtually worthless. Manned helicopters can be extremely effective and are generally far less expensive.

Duplicitous politicians also propose additional “solutions” that are ineffective and posit explanations that, when carefully scrutinized, reveal just how outrageous they are.

Such a false claim is the argument that, since we cannot deport all of the millions of illegal aliens already present in the United States, we must deal with them–however, not before we “secure the U.S./Mexican border.” No laws are enforced all of the time. Indeed, it could be successfully argued that motor vehicle laws are less enforced and less enforceable than our immigration laws. Yet no one would argue to do away with drunk driving laws, texting while driving laws or speed laws.

Yet where immigration is concerned, the fact that we cannot enforce the laws 100% of the time provides fatuous justification for not enforcing our immigration laws against millions of illegal aliens present in the United States.

America has 50 border states, yet we are constantly told that we simply need to secure the U.S./Mexican border, while ignoring that aliens enter the United States by running the northern border, stowing away on ships or by entering legally as non-immigrant (temporary) visitors who then go on to violate the terms of their admission.

The obvious solution is to effectively enforce the immigration laws from within the interior of the United States – but this would conflict with the demands of the campaign contributors.

It has been said that the only polls that counts are the polls that are open on Election Day.

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EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on Front Page Magazine.