Polls are wielding greater influence over American elections than ever.
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One appeal for voters (albeit different voters) that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders seem to share is that they don’t (or claim not to) have pollsters. The idea is: You get what you get (or in Trump’s case, “No one tells me what to say”). The idea is that poll numbers aren’t going to sway their positions or change how they talk. It’s refreshing, especially considering Jill Lepore’s look in the New Yorker at both the prevalence and power of political polling—especially the horse-race style game of predicting winners and losers—and its deep flaws (plus, a fascinating history of political polling in the US). Get this: “From the late nineteen-nineties to 2012, twelve hundred polling organizations conducted nearly thirty-seven thousand polls by making more than three billion phone calls. Most Americans refused to speak to them. This skewed results.” Another big problem: Scholars of social science “have demonstrated again and again, a sizable number of people polled either know nothing about the matters those polls purport to measure or hold no opinion about them.”

And, today, while response rates fall (single digits are now typical), and failure of polls to reliably forecast outcomes is on the rise, polls are wielding greater influence over American elections than ever. (Polling numbers have determined, for example, who’s been invited to participate in certain GOP presidential debates.)

Lepore poses critical questions: Can public opinion really be measured? Is polling actually good for democracy or does it undermine it? Is polling an important check on political decisions, giving voice—and power—to regular people? Or does it shape opinion, taking power away? One answer comes from an insider: Gallup Poll’s former managing editor David Moore, said that “media polls give us distorted readings of the electoral climate, manufacture a false public consensus on policy issues, and in the process undermine American democracy.” On the flip side, another scholar insists that quality (academic) sample surveys are “rigorously egalitarian,” achieving “representativeness through science.”

The jury is still out (and code still to be written) deciding whether innovations in data-science could more accurately measure and report on public views in a way that improved the chances for democratic decision-making, or at least gave candidates and electeds real-time cues and accountability.

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  • And…admittedly a little weird hot on the heels of all that about polling, but here’s one for you: Pew finds that a substantial majority of Americans—65 percent—say the economic system in this country “unfairly favors powerful interests.” Fewer than half as many (31 percent) say the system “is generally fair to most Americans.” Guess who is most likely to think it’s fair? The highest income Republicans.

    The candidate on the Republican side who spent the most money on TV ads by far in Iowa, lagged in the polls and wound up with 3 percent of the vote. If TV ads—a giant share of campaign budgets—don’t work the way they used to, as some are beginning to speculate, I can’t help but wonder what that means for campaign spending and the influence of money in politics.

    Finally, the author of the book I’ve been carrying around with me (and reading, very, very slowly—hey, I’m busy!) in hopes of summarizing the key takeaways for a Flashcard, has summarized his key takeaways. Yay! Here’s Per Espen Stoknes, psychologist and author of What We Think About (When We Try Not To Think About) Global Warming (via Grist), with Seven Smarter Ways to Talk About Climate Change.


    This is sickening and outrageous. A cop shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice more than two years ago. Now the city of Cleveland wants his family to pay for the ambulance ride and medical services that he received before he died. Oh the immense injustice…

    On a brighter note, how does Bernie Sanders celebrate his New Hampshire victory? He tore it up on the b-ball court, of course.