If you look at how the business of polling is conducted, you find that it’s much like economics, or sausage making. You can do whatever you want with what you’ve got to achieve basically whatever end result you ultimately desire. These days, polling statistics are often turned upside down and made so confusing that they become undecipherable, twisted to benefit either those who have an ax to grind, or those who already have a conclusion they simply wish to reinforce.
The PBS NewsHour video (below) explains how modern day polling “works” or not.
When you see how a poll is created, think about Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and his grassroots support base. It becomes instantly understandable why he doesn’t register with traditional/major polls, and why he won’t in the future. Then consider the fact that the mainstream media is furiously trying to quell the political revolution Bernie has created, and it becomes a perfect storm. But let’s get back to the pollsters….
As the PBS story explains, polls are often conducted by phone, as in phones attached to a wall in your house, aka “landlines.” Many readers probably don’t even know what a landline is, let alone do they actually have one. If landline polling is conducted, the only respondents are going to be old people who actually bother to answer a landline phone call from an unknown number. Does that represent a) young people, b) poor people, c) most of the electorate? It does not. Even when polling companies pay to call a cellphone number (and then have to literally dial the numbers themselves…no auto dialing) we run up against a wall. How many people answer a phone call from a number they aren’t familiar with? Not many.
I’ll tell you, anecdotally, that my daughter worked as a volunteer for Allison Grimes’ campaign against Mitch “The Turtle” McConnell and it involved cold calling people. Very, very few people ever answered. If they did answer, they didn’t want to participate in the conversation. Ultimately, the campaign, like most campaigns and organizations, winnow down the list of possible respondents to only older people because young people just don’t want any part of it and it’s a waste of time and money. Again, think of Bernie’s supporters. How many of them are “reachable,” even by the most sophisticated and well-funded polling companies? In my household, there is a landline (which I don’t answer) and three cellphones going to 3 registered Democrats. How many phone calls have we received, ever, from a pollster? Zero. Not one. Ever. If someone had tried, we’d never know because no one wants to answer an unknown number. I think we’re pretty typical of most Americans.
Even the biggest, richest polling companies, like Gallup, cannot hardly reach anyone who supports Bernie Sanders – young voters, minorities, middle age voters, anyone who isn’t going to respond to an anonymous internet interaction or to an “unknown caller” phone call. The only way to get an accurate “read” on his support would be through “boots on the ground.” And I’m not talking about military action. It’s more like Doc Martens on the ground.
One of the mainstream media’s most cited polling companies, Real Clear Politics polling, is an aggregator of data, which makes their whole “process” so tortured, contrived, and suspect as to be completely and utterly useless. The Harvard University’s Institute of Politics recently released a poll of their own, with a much more intense and deliberative methodology, which showed Bernie Sanders leading Hillary Clinton among Millennials (18-29 years old) by 6 percentage points. A poll which was buried pretty deep on many mainstream media websites with the exception of the one result about putting troops in direct battle against ISIS.
The real danger of polls is neither how deceptively they’re crafted nor how non-representative they are of people’s opinions. The actual damage they do runs much deeper and involves the human psyche and our own predilection for easy shortcuts and streamlined decision making. If the American electorate allows pollsters to craft a narrative that Hillary Clinton, who is untrusted and untrustworthy, is the clear nominee for the Democratic ticket, then that will become reality. This is where pushback, non-complacency and near-militant calling out of bullshit blanket statements are vital. The diamond in the rough that we are so incredibly fortunate to have in Bernie Sanders must be ferociously protected and nurtured. Much like a precious gem, Bernie’s genuine brilliance and true rarity doesn’t come along easily or often.