Can’t we please get rid of political polls? (And our own political poll. . .)

Yes, I understand that some people need political polls: candidates need numbers to stay in the race, organizations need data to decide whom to support, sociologists need to monitor the political heartbeat of America. But I don’t like them as a way to tell people how the candidates are doing. They create a “herd effect,” in which people may tend to vote for whoever’s ahead, following the crowd rather than their own heart. This is more a problem in the primaries, I guess, than in the general Presidential election, because by November the polls are largely irrelevant in whether you vote for Trump or Democrat X.

And polls make people anxious: we all become like gamblers, obsessively following the odds. It was the polls that got so many people depressed four years ago: right up to the last minute many of them predicted a Clinton victory. And when the results came in, those hopes were bitterly dashed.

We can’t ban polls, of course, but I wish people would pay less attention to them (and I say that even though I do pay attention to them).

At any rate, tonight begins the Iowa caucus, which gives that small state unwarranted power in picking the Democratic nominee. This state caucus is not a traditional vote in which each Iowa voter’s choice is tallied, but a very complicated process in which voters gather in places and stand in groups, trying to recruit other people to join their candidate-specific group (see the explanations here and here).

I won’t tell you who’s leading in Iowa, but just for fun answer below which Democratic candidate do you think will “win”.

 

 

 

78 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I would agree, polls should be eliminated or greatly reduced. But in our free society the non stop election that never stops is full of polling.

    Having the first contest in Iowa is a joke and should be stopped. With a population of 3 million white people, it is very odd. New Hampshire is almost as bad. Some candidates move into Iowa for a year or more before the caucus and it is stupid. Just shows how worthless our entire system has become.

    • Adam M.
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      I get the impression that in a sense it’s the very pollsters and pundits who make Iowa matter, since they use the result to issue new predictions of the primary winner and reinforce the “herd effect” that JC lamented. Otherwise, Iowa shouldn’t matter more than any other state with an equal number of electoral college votes.

      Perhaps they should hold the votes in all states simultaneously so one race won’t be influenced by another, but I guess that’d increase the chance of a brokered convention…

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted February 3, 2020 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

        It’s all about being first, nothing else. If Iowa was further down the line, no one would pay attention.

    • tomh
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

      The first four primary states are Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Not only do they look nothing like America in general, they only have 155 pledged delegates out of the Democratic total of 3,979, yet they have an enormous influence on the eventual nominee. By the end of those four candidates will be dropping out quickly. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

      • Mike Anderson
        Posted February 3, 2020 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

        Agree it makes no sense. Iowa has managed to put itself in a place of extra influence and they will do everything they can to maintain that disparity. It’s an old story.

  3. rickflick
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Sanders makes me nervous. Can he beat tRump without being raked over the coals as a Jewish communist?

    Biden makes me nervous. Can he beat tRump without beating himself with slips and blunders?

    I think Biden will win Iowa and think/hope he’ll trounce tRump.

    • Mark R.
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      Well, with Biden, we’ll have two candidates that can’t stop their slips and blunders. The question is, who will get away with it? So far, tRump’s base will forgive far more than slips and blunders. They’ll forgive extortion of foreign governments, 15,000+ lies, pussy-grabbing and base misogyny, bigotry, hate and I’m sure cold-blooded murder if it came to that.

    • Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      Funny thing about Biden is that he is a very so-so interviewer and is prone to the own goal gaffe. At the same time he is capable of connecting with people he talks to in amazing ways. It will be interesting to see how that translates into votes. Seems like if it were possible for him to sit down with every voter in the country and chat, he’d win this is a walk. Just about everybody says he’s so very extremely likeable. Is that enough?

      • rickflick
        Posted February 3, 2020 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

        Is that enough? – I certainly hope so.

    • EB
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      Sanders is wildly popular among the young. It depends on whether such enthusiasm will translate to turnout. I think climate change is really the animating force here (along with the desire to remove the odious one from office). These first few contests will let us know if that will be a real boon to his chances against Trump.

      • rickflick
        Posted February 3, 2020 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

        I can visualize Sanders and tRump in debate, with Sanders repeating his excited message he’s been saying for 40 years. tRump putting on a show and disparagingly sneering about him being a communist. What does an undecided voter think? I can’t visualize anything beyond that.

        • Posted February 3, 2020 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

          I can.

          • rickflick
            Posted February 3, 2020 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

            I’m afraid to ask…

            • Posted February 3, 2020 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

              I’m afraid to answer…

              • rickflick
                Posted February 4, 2020 at 10:17 am | Permalink

                Let’s keep this to ourselves. 😎

      • rickflick
        Posted February 3, 2020 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

        The Onion: “DNC Mulls Asking Donald Trump To Run As Democrat In Effort To Stop Sanders”.

  4. W.T. Effingham
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    In the summer of 2016, I caught myself using the phrase “Consider the source” so often it made me think of the song with “Consider Yourself at Home”. Perhaps a talented lyricist could come up with a good tune starting out with “Consider the Source of Polls, Consider the source of their implied meanings…” 👴

    • W.T. Effingham
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      Speaking of source considerations, I appreciate the fact that many commenters on this site use their “real names” tags with comments as Dr. Coyne kindly urges us to in Da Roolz. I would, but I “live”-er reside in a rather disfunctional sector of the lynchpin of the Buckle of the Babble Belt..so..(recent local events notwithstanding{yay KC Chiefs!}) events quite a few of my “nearest and dearest” neighbors either think I’m Catholic because I’m married to one, or I’m one of them.👴

  5. Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    I think the winner in Iowa will be Sanders but I can’t see him getting the nomination. He’s just too radical to beat Trump. Yes he has energy and a strong base but not enough of either when you look at the entire country instead of those that vote in Dem primaries.

  6. Simon Hayward
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Iowa always seems like a lot of effort for less than 1% of the total delegates. Does anyone have thoughts on Bloomberg? I really don’t know enough about him to comment. But you could plausible postulate that he might become seen as a white knight candidate for the establishment democrats if Bernie starts to get on a roll in Iowa and NH.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      Donald Trump has been going after Michael Bloomberg recently on the paramount policy issue of Bloomberg’s being short (“Mini Mike,” according to Trump’s trenchant analysis of the crucial height question).

      • Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

        Bloomberg seems to be one of the candidates who answers Trump’s insults with insults of his own. Rather than when they go low we go high, he seems to be when they go low I kick them in the balls.

        If Trump wants to talk height, let him do it without his shoes on. Based on the fact that he leans forward and almost looks like he’s falling over all the time in a side profile, people who apparently know something about these things say he has 2 to 2 1/2 inch lifts in his shoes.

        • Posted February 3, 2020 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

          Considering Trump’s character, it would be more surprising if he did not have lifts in his shoes, regardless of his natural height.

    • Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      I had thought him a moderate with both political and business experience. I don’t know much else. But for those points I wish he had more traction in the damn polls than he does, since the ‘businessman’ thing would suck votes from the Oompa Loopa now in the White House.

      • Historian
        Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        Here are the basics about Bloomberg. This is from Wikipedia: “Bloomberg served as the 108th mayor of New York City, holding office for three consecutive terms, two terms as a Republican and one as an Independent beginning his first in 2002. A lifelong Democrat before seeking elective office, Bloomberg switched his party registration in 2001 to run for mayor as a Republican.”

        So, Bloomberg has gone from Democrat to Republican to Independent and now back to Democrat. Party loyalty does not seem to be his thing. He claims to be a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. While mayor of NYC, he instituted a policy called “stop and frisk.” It gave the police the power to frisk anyone they considered suspicious. Naturally, minorities were mostly affected by this and they are unlikely to forget what he did. He now regrets the policy.

        Bloomberg is not a favorite of the left of the Democratic Party. If he should gain the nomination, the left may sit out out the election or vote for the Green Party candidate. On the other hand, he may get some votes from what remains of Republican moderates. This election has so many uncertainties and whether he can win is one of them.

        • Mike Anderson
          Posted February 3, 2020 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

          While mayor of NYC, he instituted a policy called “stop and frisk.”

          “Stop and frisk” in NYC predates Bloomberg. Rudy Giuliani was the one that significantly ramped it up. Bloomberg did maintain the policy until it was curtailed by the courts.

          • Historian
            Posted February 3, 2020 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

            Thanks for the clarification.

        • Posted February 3, 2020 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

          “Bloomberg is not a favorite of the left of the Democratic Party. If he should gain the nomination, the left may sit out out the election or vote for the Green Party candidate.”

          You are probably right. And, in a nutshell, that is why I am bracing myself for a Trump second term.

          • tomh
            Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

            Because you think Bloomberg may get the nomination? Not a chance.

  7. Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I’m with you, Prof. Ceiling Cat. The worst aspect of polls to my mind is that they suck time and space away from real news, like candidates’ records, whose money they’re accepting, etc. You know, news: stuff that someone doesn’t want you to print or air.

  8. DrBrydon
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    The more important an issue is to me, the less I trust polls. We’ve seen in the last few elections that media distrust extends to polling, as shown by Republican’s under-polling. At the same time, I have to wonder who is responding to these polls. We’ve received calls at least twice from pollsters, and said ‘no thanks.’ Frankly, the vast majority of calls we get nowawdays are unwanted, and I suspect that a lot of people feel that way. What spectrum of the population is actually responding? All this leaves aside the often questionable basis of the polls, especially sample-size. As some wag has observed, there’s only one poll that matters, and that happens on election day.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      The more important an issue is to me, the less I trust polls. We’ve seen in the last few elections that media distrust extends to polling, as shown by Republican’s under-polling.

      The 2016 presidential polls were quite accurate. What was grossly wrong were those analyses of polls that said Hillary had a 99% chance of winning.

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        I have never seen a poll that gave Ms Clinton a 99% chance of winning. All I can remember was in the high eighties, and in the lower eighties after ‘Mr Comey’. Do you have a link to this 99%?

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      One must also be wary that such calls come not from legitimate pollsters but from companies engaged in so-called “push polling,” wherein the questions are designed not to gauge one’s preferences but to encourage one to support a particular candidate or cause.

      It’s one of the most pernicious forms of campaign advertising.

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

        100% agreement here.
        I think though that sites like 538 do a good job at excluding these ‘fake polls’, They have an elaborate weighing system, and those suspect polls are simply excluded.

  9. Mike Anderson
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    I pick Bernie (for Iowa), because he’s leading in the polls.

    • Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      It’s good to be a winner!

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s still the way to handicap ’em.

  10. Pliny the in Between
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    In Oregon, the only political ads we’re seeing, at this time, with any regularity are for Bloomberg.

    • Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      There is no place in the country where you can escape Bloomberg ads. Resistance is futile.

      But you must have seen a few Steyer ads, no?

      • Mark R.
        Posted February 3, 2020 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        I read your comment after posting. Yes, I did see some Steyer ads a while ago, but none recently.

        We’re there any Presidential political ads during the Super Bowl? I fast forward through the commercials.

        • Mark R.
          Posted February 3, 2020 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

          We’re? were…damn apostrophes””’

          • Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

            I believe Trump had two and Bloomberg one but I wan’t really counting. Trump spent like $11-12M on his ads I read.

            • Mike Anderson
              Posted February 3, 2020 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

              Trump’s Super Bowl ads were overshadowed by his post-game tweet congratulating the Kansas City and “the great state of Kansas”.

              • Posted February 3, 2020 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

                Best reply to that by far was the picture of Kansas with a sharpie drawn around the KCMO metropolitan area.

              • Mike Anderson
                Posted February 3, 2020 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

                I can’t wait to see how the comedians skewer this one.

              • Mark R.
                Posted February 3, 2020 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

                And Trump’s cult has been twisting themselves into pretzels trying to explain his mistake as not being a mistake. Like God Almighty, Trump is perfect and has never made nor ever will make something as human as a mistake.

              • Mike Anderson
                Posted February 3, 2020 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

                “THERE IS A KANSAS CITY IN KANSAS, YOU KNOW!!!”

                As if that somehow excuses Trump’s blunder.

              • Pliny the in Between
                Posted February 3, 2020 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

                I seem to recall someone in the Trumpiverse recently berating a reporter about whether or not they could ID Ukraine on the map…

        • Posted February 3, 2020 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

          I saw a somewhat effective ad by Trump on his criminal justice reform achievements (perhaps that should be singular) and one by Bloomberg touting how tough he will be on gun control. I thought the Super Bowl audience might be the wrong one for Bloomberg’s ad.

          • GBJames
            Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

            I think the “Super Bowl audience” is most of America, present company excepted.

    • Mark R.
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Same here in Washington. I’ve only seen Bloomberg ads. I reckon most (D) candidates aren’t too interested in WA or OR because they ‘know’ the states will go blue regardless. Bloomberg is not appealing to me or anyone I know. The optics of his buying a Presidential nomination via TV ads and not participating in debates is ridiculous. He’s an “unknown known”.

    • Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      Then there were the ones for trump during the Super Bowl. Gag.

  11. Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I don’t mind the occasional poll, but this continuous polling drives me nuts. Don’t they ever run out of people willing to be polled?

    The funny thing is that a week after its caucus, Iowa will be irrelevant again.

  12. Posted February 3, 2020 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    I will puck Biden just yo be different.

    • Posted February 3, 2020 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      I will pick Biden just to be different. It is a tossup and any of the top four could win.

      I check the polls on Real Politics (?) every day and enjoy following them every day the way I used to follow the baseball scores and stats.

      A lot if people in Michigan in 2016 did not vote because they thought from the polls that Clinton would win in a landslide. The polls can’t predict who will turn out and vote.

      Our process is a piece of work. Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are the first three states and usually weed out all but two or three if the candidates. Not a system any other country has followed.

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    They create a “herd effect,” in which people may tend to vote for whoever’s ahead, following the crowd rather than their own heart. This is more a problem in the primaries …

    Yeah, I’d say so given that, since the demise of big-city machine politics after the 1960s and the institution of the Iowa caucuses in 1976, the only Democrat to win the Party’s presidential nomination without winning in either Iowa and/or Vermont has Bill Clinton — who was on the verge of being knocked out of the 1992 race until he rallied to finish second in Vermont (thereby declaring himself “the Comeback Kid”).

    This year, I think the eventual Democratic nominee will likely need to win at least one of the four small-state contests heading into Super Tuesday on March 3rd, and the earlier the victory the better his or her chances.

    • Historian
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      You mean New Hampshire, not Vermont.😊

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted February 3, 2020 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

        Yes, thanks. I was thinking NH, but wrote “Vermont.” Maybe someone was talking about Bernie in the background.

  14. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    I think Democrats would be well-served to adopt “ranked-preference” primary voting — where, say, the voter ranks his her her top three choices, which are weighted accordingly — rather then winner-take-all.

    Seems the best way to ensure that a consensus candidate, one satisfactory to all wings of the Party, winds up as the nominee.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      I say every election should be ranked choice voting.

      • Adam M.
        Posted February 3, 2020 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

        Agreed. A good reform of the way we count our votes would do more than almost anything else to give me hope in our political system.

        • Mike Anderson
          Posted February 3, 2020 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

          Getting rid of the Electoral College is also an important in achieving better government. It’s crazy that this antiquated system can override the will of the people.

          • Posted February 3, 2020 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

            The constitution could be amended to accomplish that. Some of the small states would have to be given an incentive to vote for the change. Not sure what that incentive could be but someone should be giving it some thought. Lots of someones.

            • Mike Anderson
              Posted February 3, 2020 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

              There’s the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which might be able to bypass the EC without an amendment.

              The EC is detrimental not only because of inherent unfairness, it also elevates swing states in both campaigning and governing. Trump will be catering to Wisconsin because it’s a swing state this year, he’ll also be ignoring California because he has no chance of winning there.

  15. Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    I have tried my best not to respond to any of these polls. I receive numerous requests via phone, email and snail mail. I have always made it a point not to tell anyone outside my immediate family who or what I plan to vote for. Modern media sources have way too much influence on the voting populace.

  16. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    In Iowa, Ms Klobuchar should get more than 30% of the vote under normal circumstances. This poll-fed notion of ‘electability’ plays heavily against her chances though.
    I fear Iowans don’t see how she would destroy Mr Trump in the Mid-West, that was where Ms Clinton lost the EC.
    I think that Ms Klobuchar is not just the Mid West candidate, I think she is the most likely to defeat Mr Trump in the EC. Never mind the polls that do not really measure that.

    • Charles Sawicki
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      Agree! Klobuchar is smart and tough so she could stand up to a nasty campaign while making fun of Trump and winning the Midwest.

  17. Posted February 3, 2020 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Polls mean something but no one i think knows quite what. If you think you do, it is always made on incomplete information.
    Rain can and does deter apathetic voters and you can argue if these types of variables make a difference. Perhap keeping an eye on the weather has relevance.
    Polls use so called experts and commentators, human speak for I know nothing but guesses, like the rest of the population. IMO. Some will get it right even if not totally correct in their analyst, opinion, comments.
    Anyone with some background research can put their oars in and predict and that should be made plain and clear about polls.
    Anyhow albeit interesting even if the polls get it right, so what, it was going to happen anyway,
    whoop de do!

  18. Posted February 3, 2020 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    WTF is going on in Iowa?

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted February 3, 2020 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

      In Iowa, a shitshow:

      • EB
        Posted February 4, 2020 at 12:01 am | Permalink

        NYT Update: Full on clusterfuck in Iowa. Here’s what you need to know.

  19. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted February 4, 2020 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    As I predicted yesterday, Democrats aren’t interested in winning the Presidency – Iowa is a mess and isn’t decided as I write. I hear The Unmentionable has sailed through a similar primary, and is crowing about both outcomes.

    But since yesterday I have had time to catch up on the modeling of democratic elections, and how US is an example of a chaotic system since 1970 (R = 0.86 when model is fitted against opinion). [ https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/01/low-turnout-and-polarization-are-a-deadly-combo-for-electoral-stability/; w/ link to the Nature Physics paper.]

    The researchers define something called negative representation. In the case of negative representation, the opinion of the electorate—or part of the electorate—might shift in one direction, but the election results will go in the opposite direction. This is what can happen when voters refuse to vote.

    Even worse, the presence of negative representation can result in instability. That is, the change in an election result is larger than the change in the opinions of the electorate. What’s more, it doesn’t matter if the non-voters are clumped at one end of the spectrum or evenly distributed—the effect is the same.

    Show me the wild elections
    We know that there are elements of this in most electoral systems, where a substantial fraction of voters abstains because they feel that no candidate represents them well enough. But in those countries, wild election swings are not observed. So what’s wrong with the model?

    The missing ingredients are electorate polarization and low voter turnout. When these are added to the mix, then small shifts in opinion among the electorate can result in large electoral swings. This behavior in the dynamical model is a “phase transition,” and one of those is bad news. When a system undergoes a phase transition, it is very difficult to return to the previous state. That means that if an electorate has entered an unstable regime, it is likely to stay there for a long period of time.

    And, yes, you guessed it, the researchers point to the United States as a possible example. They examined electorate polarization and claim that it shows all the characteristics required for instability. Here, in fact, they turned the model on its head. The model predicts that, in the presence of instability, the amount of polarization will increase in a characteristic way. The real-world data supports that contention.

    In short, no matter what your political opinion, prepare to be overstressed and depressed by election results for the foreseeable future.

    From SciTechDaily:

    The increasing instability also results in part from the structure of party primary systems, which have greatly increased their role in candidate selection since the ’70s. Because the voters in primaries tend to have more extreme partisan views than those of the general electorate, politicians are more inclined to take positions to appeal to those voters — positions that may be more extreme than those favored by more mainstream voters, and thus less likely to win in the general election.

    From the paper:

    If one subpopulation is significantly larger, the smaller subpopulation will consistently lose, but if there is a close balance between the two subpopulations, then small variations determine which subpopulation wins. The variations might include changes in population, nuances in the candidates’ personalities, changes in the rules (simple majority versus electoral college system, for example), voting restrictions, and the effectiveness of turnout operations. From election cycle to election cycle, the outcome can swing between the two subpopulations, with the majority of the opinions in the losing subpopulation being negatively represented (section S1 G). This instability that arises in a polarized electorate was qualitatively predicted in 1957 by Downs [5], who claimed that “democracy does not lead to effective, stable government when the electorate is polarized.”

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted February 4, 2020 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      That should have been R^2 = 0,86, and WordPress didn’t mount the figure. I’ll try again:

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted February 4, 2020 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Sig. R^2 = 0.86, and now the figure need a context: it is SciTechDaily’s labeled version.

  20. Mike Anderson
    Posted February 4, 2020 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Headline of my blog (if I had a blog):

    Bloomberg Wins Iowa/b>


%d bloggers like this: