Among the galaxy of issues voters have encountered during the 2016 election cycle is one which most of us assumed was figured out 100 years ago: polling. The concept seems simple enough -- ask people who they're voting for, write down their answers, do first-grade-level math, and you've got the name of the next president in front of you.
Sadly, the thoughtlessly simple version of polling we carry around in our brains is not how it truly works. And this unscientific quasi-voodoo way of predicting the next leader of the free world might explain why we're watching the biggest Republican implosion on record ... at least, since that time Teddy Roosevelt held in a fart for way too long.
6The "Margin Of Error" Is Usually Meaningless
Every time a poll gets featured on the news, there's always a mention of the "margin of error." Basically, it's the over/under on how inaccurate the poll will admit to potentially being. According to Statistics For Dummies, the margin of error formula looks like this:
John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Moe the Stooge smacking you with a giant wrench would be less painful than solving for MOE.
Since not enough of the reading audience have been magically transformed into math geniuses by a very specific genie yet, we'll let Statistics For Dummies spell it all out slowly for us: "P is the sample proportion, n is the sample size, and z is the appropriate value from the standard normal distribution for your desired confidence level." Yikes. Just know that there's a formula out there that explains how dumb we all are when it comes to polling.
Conventional wisdom says that the smaller the margin of error, the better. And it also stands to reason that the more people you survey, the smaller it gets, right? Here's the thing, though: Modern experts "disagree fiercely" about when and if the whole margin of error thing should even be used at all. Not to mention -- and hold onto your hats, because this may be a nearly inconceivable revelation coming up here -- it turns out the people doing the polling can't always be trusted.
KatarinaGondova / iStock
Editing your gun control "yea" to a Flat Earth trutherism one is one stroke of whiteout away.
Besides the fact that talking to a few hundred (or even thousand) knuckleheads can never be a precisely accurate representation of the beliefs of a nation of hundreds of millions, something called "biased sampling" on the part of the pollsters can further skew the results away from reality. Let's say you want to know who "the people" consider the greatest singer of all time. And because you're lazy and live next door to a nursing home, the only people you poll are on the closer-to-death side of 75 years old. That's biased sampling. Also, good luck quelling the riots between the Johnny Mathis Mafia and the Tony Bennett Gang.
The "fierce debate" we mentioned earlier, over whether we should still be incorporating the margin of error into poll discussions at all, was sparked by the recent advent of online polling. Because what could be more random than asking people on the internet? Surely, surveys taken online are going to result in the most accurate outcomes possible, one argument states, so therefore the whole margin of error concept has been rendered practically moot. To which we can only make a simple counterpoint: Mountain Dew once asked people online to name one of the their new flavors, and the winner -- by a landslide -- was "Hitler Did Nothing Wrong."
Hillary Clinton could have displayed her trust in the the average American voter
if she had used this system to name her recently-born granddaughter.
5Polls Are Only Accurate In The Immediate Months Before An Election
It seems people love hearing about poll results, because it feels like we've been getting inundated with Gallup this and Rasmussen that in regards to the upcoming presidential election since ... well ... the last presidential election. And those results sure do seem to change a lot, don't they? Historically, from week to week and month to month, you might see a number of candidates in the lead who would go on to drop out of the race entirely due to lack of interest. One notable exception is Martin O'Malley, who never quite left the "Who?" list before dropping out.
No, Martin. You really aren't.
The truth is that when you see a poll that doesn't take place immediately before the election itself, the results mean practically fuck-all where accuracy is concerned. And the reason should be obvious: Circumstances change. But that doesn't stop the incessant polling from taking place, nor the talking heads on the news from pretending what the information they're giving you isn't a steaming load of jibba-jabba.
Melhan / pixabay
If you see one of these signs on the lawn of an abandoned house, keep walking.
Back in 1975, early results put Ted Kennedy as the man most likely to take up residence in the White House the following year. And if he wasn't elected president, then surely it would be Hubert Humphrey or unrepentant racist George Wallace. Nobody predicted a toothy Georgia peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter would get the job. And once Carter's one-term fandango was up, polls in 1979 predicted that surely he would be replaced by ... Ted Kennedy again.
United States Government
And it's been the same story pretty much every time. Bill Clinton came from practically out of nowhere, as did Barack Obama. Granted, this time around, we have two candidates who have led the field since the very beginning. But in 2015, The New York Times wanted you to believe that Marco Rubio would win the Republican nomination (despite Trump having won most polls to that point.)
No matter how many times you explain the inaccuracy of early polling to reporters and pundits, they can't seem to restrain themselves from oohing and aahing over every temporary shift in the political trade winds and assigning it an importance that simply isn't there. Or understand that most people don't care about each twist and turn in the process. Because, as David Greenberg of The Atlantic puts it, "believe it or not, they have better things to do."