Sometimes, they are just hard to avoid. They spring up, almost daily, prognosticating the future and therefore predicting what our country may look like in the years to come. You can watch them climb up and fall with the change in days, months and years. Sometimes they can seem overpowering, as if their subtle shifts really matter. But that can be the issue, because in the end, how much should we really care?
These are polls. These are the predictors of the future. It seems to me, at least, that political coverage has become infused with polling coverage. Polling has not always been very accurate, as seen by the infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, the Chicago Tribune printed the incorrect result about the election, a result of incomplete and poor polling. However, since this time, polling firms have become institutionalized and also legitimized with collaborations with major media companies. Nearly every “major” media outlet conducts election polls including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, CNN, NBC and Fox. The polls these companies conduct often become headlines, and just today, two Politicos front-page stories have covered different polls about the presidential race. Most of these outlets will understandably push their own polls, looking to make them the “true” indicators of the elections.
Yet polling has begun occupying a world of itself. After correctly predicting the outcome of 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 election and doing impressively well by aggregating poll data, Nate Silver launched a political blog called FiveThirtyEight, which was eventually bought by ESPN and has become a site renowned for its focus on polling. It publishes its own models of the election, which give the odds of the general election outcome and the likelihood of each individual state and senate race. The Huffington Post and the New York Times have also created similar models, and sites such as RealClear Politics published pretty much every poll out there. Often, you will see articles that analyze Trump’s comments through the lens of polling, for the purpose of discussing and admonishing his behavior or promoting the capability of his campaign. In this sense, political coverage becomes a “game” to itself, as demonstrated by websites such as Betfair or PredictWise, where you can place bets on the election and electoral outcomes. Occasionally, political coverage becomes all about the polls and how the race changes instead of the actual policies that Presidents promote or the people they affect.
The question for us is, how much attention to the polls should we paying instead of other political issues and ideas? Polling does have its merits, as it helps in validating electoral results, but this is not really how the massive polling initiatives are used in the United States. Some would argue that polls are not any better than pundits or journalists offering their opinions on what will happen during the election. I would agree with that argument and place polls under the same category of election “prognostication” instead of election coverage. We should evaluate Hillary Clinton’s tax plan not on how it affects “her progressive base,” but on how it affects the ability of our government to create an equitable and just society for the people.
In this sense, maybe it is best for us to stay clear of most polling and “horse race” coverage in order to have a better understanding of the elections and encourage our media organizations to do the same. If we pay more attention to stories about political, social, cultural and economic issues in America and what the candidates believe the correct solutions will be, I believe that our ability to create a just and fair government can only be improved. If we have to live out our current style of democracy, then the best way to improve the lives of millions and fight issues of as racism, inequality or environmental degradation is to pay attention to those people and what will affect them. People will vote for who they vote for. It is their choice. Let us focus less on who they are going to vote for and focus more on how to better understand the world in which they vote in. Let us not measure our country’s future. Let us shape it.