Does Public Polling Hurt Democracy?

by Andrew Forrest

Tomorrow is election day, and all the media organizations are poring over the polls, eager to tell us who’s up and who’s down and who’s going to be the next President of the United States. I’m curious what tomorrow will bring, too, but I worry that our modern obsession with polling presents a problem for our republic. Here’s why.

Public Polls are Self-Fulfilling

“Don’t throw your vote away.” This is the advice we’re constantly given. If we vote for the candidate whom the polls say has no chance of winning, we feel as if we’re wasting our vote. People want to back a winner. So, when the media tell us that this or that candidate is definitely going to lose, it makes us less likely to vote for the candidate who is behind, thereby reinforcing the polling results. Many American political campaigns are based less on ideas than on the “inevitability” of this or that candidate. I’d argue that inevitability was the main argument of George W. Bush’s candidacy in the Republican primaries of 2000 and Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in the Democratic primaries this year.

Public Polls Prop-up Our Current 2 Party System

Because the polls tell us that voting for a 3rd party candidate is a futile exercise, many of us reluctantly support the 2 main parties in elections. Unfortunately, this means there are significant parts of the electorate and significant ideas that are not given a hearing. It is telling that so many people appreciated Bernie Sanders’s message of economic populism, a message that was relatively unheard in previous Democratic primary campaigns, even though it’s clear now there’s been an electorate eager to hear it. It is also telling that Donald Trump was the first Republican candidate that I know of to explicitly call the Iraq War a mistake. What if there was another party on the left that was able to make the arguments the Democrats refuse to make, or another party on the right that was able to make the arguments that the Republicans refuse to make? The point is that if alternative political movements and parties were able to gain traction in our system, new ideas would gain traction as well. Competition is good in the public square: it makes each of us refine our ideas and our arguments. Rival parties would make Republicans and Democrats better, which would make our republic better.

Public Polling Perpetuates the Red/Blue Divide

It doesn’t seem as if Texas is going to turn blue any time soon, any more than it seems that California will turn red, and I think public polling perpetuates this divide. If people in the minority party in various states weren’t convinced that their votes “wouldn’t count,” then perhaps they’d be more likely to vote, which in turn would require politicians and parties to make more effective arguments in so-called safe districts and spaces, taking no votes for granted.

Public Polling Encourages the Media to Focus on the Horse Race

I’ve written before (and it’s not an argument unique to me) how the media obsession with who is ahead and who is behind–the “horse race”–is bad for democracy. Public polling encourages the media to make every story about how this or that development will hurt or help a candidate, and discourages the media from telling the electorate what ideas the candidate supports, and how those ideas will play out in government. This unhealthy obsession with the political horse race means that we begin to assume that the only thing that matters is winning, and politics becomes a permanent campaign, with actual governing an afterthought.

Okay, Smart Guy, What Should We?Do?

I think there are 2 actions we could take that would begin to undue the malign influence public polling has on our republic. (Note that in this post I’ve been talking about public polling. I see no problem with candidates and parties conducting polls for their own purposes, as long as they don’t make those polls public. And,?I can certainly see the value of exit-polling, because that kind of polling doesn’t influence elections results, but rather gives us more insight into the electorate.)

First, I think Americans should be encouraged to vote for the candidate we like most. Rather than voting for whom seems most likely to win, or whom we dislike least, if we each began to vote our beliefs, our republic would be better served.

Second, I think we should consider legal and Constitutional limits on the publicizing of polling results before elections.? The First Amendment would seem to prohibit any restrictions on the press. I believe strongly in the importance of a free press, but perhaps there might be narrow laws or even Constitutional amendments that?could be passed that would appropriate. (For example, the Supreme Court has ruled that the press does not have the right to publish child pornography.) I’m not sure what the answer is here, but I think it’s at least worth exploring, and it might be the case that the Fourteenth Amendment (“equal protection of the laws”) could have some bearing on the issue.

Am I Missing Something?

I’m worried about the negative effects of public polling. Am I missing something? Is there a greater public good I’m overlooking? Let me know what you think.


(If you’d like to read more on this issue, Jill Lepore had an interesting essay that looks at the historical development of opinion polls in the November 16, 2015 issue of?The New Yorker called “Are Polls Ruining Democracy?”? She was also a guest on?Fresh Air in February 2016. The BBC explored the polling and whether it should be banned before elections here.)



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Jay Turner November 7, 2016 - 12:55 pm

You didn’t miss a thing, and I could not agree more. In fact, my wife and I had a similar discussion last night. The media is/can be so controlling, or attempt to be. It seems that for the last few weeks, confusion and uncertainty are really the winners in the polls. Who knows. Just who are all of these pollsters anyway, and who gave them any authority or credibility.
I’m with Andrew. Vote for who you like best, or maybe in this election, who you dislike the least.
And pray that good, honest leaders will emerge in our near future, and in the meantime, trust God to keep us on the right track as a nation.

Deborah Causwell November 7, 2016 - 6:54 pm

I would like to see where exit polling would not be released until after the election. This serves no purpose.
I agree with you.

Rodney November 8, 2016 - 9:19 am

I wonder if public sentiment about the quality of the candidates degrades the accuracy of the information that polls produce? Our choices at the ballot box are so personal that most people will not ask their friends point-blank who they voted for. Is it possible that a person who begrudgingly votes for one particular candidate tells the pollsters that they actually voted for another based on who is popular in their particular county? I wonder if divisiveness makes it harder for us to get accurate polling information, which then perpetuates divisiveness?


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