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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


Polls are snapshots — don’t let them mislead your judgement

A graphic of an increasing line with the rotunda of the U.S. Capital. According to a survey done with registered voters by The Hill, 52% of voters doubt polls they hear about in the news. GO DIGITAL/FLICKR VIA CC BY SA 2.0

Anya Marquardt is a freshman, english education major and journalism minor.

Polls are one of the many ways we have collected data over the years. Their questions are generally based on a set of interviews and written questions used to determine or predict what people believe, how they feel about something (usually a specific topic, like an advertisement), or how a group of people will react to something.

Polls play a very prominent role in the political landscape. They have been a favorite tool for many politicians, who use polls for everything from feedback on TV commercials and advertisements to policy approval ratings.

However, Americans are beginning to distrust polls such as the 2016 election more and more due to their public inaccuracies. Polls are only predictions; there is never a guarantee that they will be accurate, and therefore, we should stop using poll results as much as we do now.

Polls are being used more frequently by political candidates and — by association — political journalism. Journalists often use a candidate’s poll results in their articles about the candidate or the political topic at hand. According to a survey done with registered voters by The Hill, 52% of voters doubt polls they hear about in the news, with poll usage in the media beginning to push people away from the news instead of towards it. If a voter doesn’t trust the evidence at hand, the poll is useless.

So why do we see polls as inaccurate? There are many outliers and issues with polls. For instance, many polls are optional; therefore, you often do not get the large and diverse population that you need to have an accurate poll. It is also hard to contact a large enough number of people for an accurate poll.

In 2013, 41% of U.S. households had a cell phone but no landline, and this number has been increasing ever since. Polling companies are suffering due to this because of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, which states that cell phones cannot be autodialed. This makes it incredibly expensive and time-consuming for companies to poll those who do not have landlines. Most of those without landlines have been proven to be younger households and lower income households, which are a large part of the voting population; those who have not been represented by various polls due to these issues have been coined the “silent majority.”

The media also has a large influence on polls. New poll results are often posted in newspapers and on websites, which often boosts the popularity of the candidate through name recognition. For example, President Donald Trump was polling at 2% before he announced his candidacy. After he announced his run for president, Trump’s support immediately jumped to 11%. Just seeing his name in the papers boosted his popularity.

The 2016 presidential election has been seen as one of the most infamous poll inaccuracies in modern history. For months, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was leading Trump in all pre-election polls in the battleground states that ended up determining the presidency, yet Trump came out victorious. Over time, three likely reasons for these inaccuracies have been discovered: later voters, voter turnout increases and an underestimated number of Trump supporters because undecided voters decided to vote for Trump in the days leading up to his candidacy, after polls were taken and released.

Turnout for Trump’s supporters also turned out to be higher than originally predicted, which led to him winning many of the battleground states that Clinton had been predicted to win in pre-election polls. These polls had underestimated the amount of supporters that Trump had, which included many states that were extremely important to the election results, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana. It has become very hard to trust polls when they very poorly predicted the results of the most recent presidential election.

Overall, polls are losing their prominence in the media for these reasons. Polls are predictions of the future, and unfortunately, we can’t predict the future as well as we would like to. Our dependence on polls has led to many errors and shocks in large elections, such as the 2016 election. If we loosen our grip on polls, we may have less surprises in the future when it comes to prominent elections.

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