6 Shocking Reasons You Can't Trust Election Predictions
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.
The "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:
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.
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.
Polls 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.
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.
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."
People Who Take Polls Don't Represent Normal People
There was a time, believe it or not, when Americans were A-OK with strangers knocking on their doors on days other than Halloween. Back in the old days, there were door-to-door salespeople, religious folks who weren't Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons, and weirdos who left milk on your porch before running away. Pollsters, in other words, weren't immediately treated with shifty eyes every time they knocked on a door.
But now we're not that trusting, way more apathetic, or maybe we simply can't be bothered because we have a quadrillion better things to do. Whatever the reason, the response rate for polls is way down from what it used to be. We're talking a "Vanilla Ice from 1990 to 1991" kind of decline in popularity. It's become so bad that the only people participating in polls, or at least a disproportionate number of them, are the same sort of loons who call in regularly to AM talk shows.
"Gus from Tampa, my screener says you have something to say about
the "Obummer" administration and how we all need to 'wake up'?"
Deriving a truly random sample of the larger population has become a daunting task for pollsters, and without a decently large number of respondents, the risk of a failed prediction becomes more like a foregone conclusion. Especially when so many of the people who are willing to take part can best be described as "oddballs," or those who are looking to screw around for laughs. Keep in mind, we are living in a world in which British citizens, when asked by their government to help name a new polar research vessel, decided the winner should be "Boaty McBoatface."
Or that time they wackily voted to leave the EU and obliterate their own economy just to fuck over immigrants? God LOL the Queen!
It could very well have something to do with the fact that we've become so harassed by businesses, schools, hospitals, and whatever else to "please fill out this quick list of questions to help us blah blah blah" that we can't take them seriously anymore. Or it could be the fact that surveys are often conducted by robots, or by biased parties conducting "push polls" designed to convince us to vote for the politician who's paying them to make the call in the first place. Either way, Boaty McBoatface is going to be our new president whether we like it or not.
Technology Has Made It Impossible To Poll A Wide Demographic Of Ages
In addition to simply knocking on doors like a courteous brush salesman / home invader, calling people on the telephone used to be the main way polls were taken. But now that your grandparents are the only ones who prefer landlines as their primary means of communication over cellphones, it's become a bit more problematic. Ever since the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act prevented companies from auto-dialing, calling large amounts of people in a timely manner is a huge time and money sink.
Poll takers will still try to get ahold of people who continue to plug their phones into a wall. It's just that hardly anyone even bothers to pick up anymore. And the few who do tend to tie up the line with stories about the time Bob Hope visited their division during the Korean War. Young people and the very poor often don't have landlines at all, and while we're certainly not saying the opinions of senior citizens aren't valid, they're not very ... diverse. Here's a handy graph, in case you're waving your cane in fury at all these dagnabbity allegations.
Unless the laws make an exception for organizations looking to conduct polls -- which is laughable on its face -- this issue is going to keep getting worse as more and more people choose the wireless-only lifestyle. So unless Gallup forms a partnership with the Girl Scouts of America, the personal approach to gauging the national mood will soon become a thing of the past.
"Buy five more boxes of thin mints, and we won't tell anyone about how
you checked 'strongly in favor' for Martin O'Malley a few months ago."
Some Polls Are Designed To Get Dumb Answers
Remember how we mentioned those "push polls?" The ones that couldn't care less about actually getting your opinion and would much rather create a new one for you? Not only are those nasty bits of subterfuge a popular pastime for political operatives, but many polls also take the route of guiding respondents in a certain direction. Or rather, manipulating the wording so they get the answer they want. And sometimes they're unconscionably dumb. That's why you'll sometimes see ridiculous headlines like:
Conversely, three out of four head lice prefer the excitement of living on windblown strands of space-age polymers.
Well, unless around 50 percent of America enjoys spending their evenings relaxing with a nit-removal comb, this particular poll may not be entirely accurate. But let's see how they worded the question:
"What do you have a higher opinion of, Donald Trump or lice?"
It's clear that a question asked in this way has little chance of eliciting anything close to scientific data. But once you get enough people to go along with the joke, voila! Newspaper headline. Or you could always show a bunch of ignorant-ass preschoolers some pictures, then extrapolate something inflammatory out of the nonsense to get:
Or take a small percentage (in this case, only four percent) from a dubiously administered poll, convert it to numbers in a haphazard way, and you can transform the results into something eye-catching, like:
We can understand the few individuals who might have had a bad Bernie Sanders gym locker room experience, but 12 million?
In a lot of polls, the questions are phrased so that it's irresistible to answer in a particular way. And if you subtly change up the wording, even a little bit, you can get people to give a very different response. A good example was when the Pew Research Center asked the question, "Do you happen to know what Barack Obama's religion is? Is he Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, or something else?"
To which 34 percent of respondents said he was Christian, 18 percent believed he was Muslim, and 45 percent were either unsure or refused to answer. But then Time Magazine conducted a similar experiment, and worded it thusly: "Do you personally believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim or a Christian?"
With this approach, they got a much lower percentage of "I neither know nor give a shit" responses, and wound up with much-increased percentages in both the Christian and Muslim categories. Which of course led to shocking headlines to the effect of "A QUARTER OF ALL AMERICANS BELIEVE OBAMA SLAUGHTERS GOATS TO HIS SHARIA OVERLORDS IN THE WHITE HOUSE" and so forth. Which sounds like a mess, but probably no worse than the other ways that poor Oval Office carpet has been defiled by various fluids over the years.
After eight years, there was very little that the noted philanderer Socks the Cat didn't cover in ejaculate.
On The Internet, Polling Technique Is A Free-For-All
We talked a little bit earlier about the perils of online voting, but we should probably get used to the fact that it will soon (if it hasn't already) become the standard. And aside from the obvious Mountain Dew = Hitler scenarios, the lack of scientifically proven methodologies means it's still a Wild West shitshow, with the role of Mysterious Stranger being played by SurveyMonkey.
Which is rather fitting, considering the amount of feces being hurled around every election cycle.
Online polls occur with about the same frequency as the traditional kinds now, and the upside is that there's the potential to reach a wider variety of people. Big-name media outlets are citing results from that aforementioned Surveymonkey site all the time, even though their approach is usually to sneak a few political questions within the myriad of silly, unscientific-as-hell polls created on a regular basis for ... entertainment purposes, we guess?
Listen to some Bostonite scream about how we're destroying the cahhntry by voting for this ahrange disahhstah and try not to smile.
Which brings up something interesting. You're probably aware that, for a while, Donald Trump dominated every poll he was in, right? Well, for some reason, when it's an internet poll, he dominates even harder. Sometimes a full 10 points harder. Is this because people are possibly ashamed to admit their support of Donald Trump, and that they think he should become our next president like for reals, to an actual human being?
Especially when Trump has already promised to return the favor by banning the goddamn internet.
We don't yet know exactly why that particular phenomenon is occurring, but it certainly does raise a few concerns about online polling in general. One of which being that, when a news agency publicizes a referendum which most people expect to have some basis in scientific integrity, perhaps we shouldn't be relying on the same people who think Tyrion Lannister will be the dark horse candidate who'll come out of nowhere to win the next election.
He drinks and he knows things. Unlike America, who come November will probably just drink.
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