The Problem with Polls

People hate uncertainty.  We’ll do pretty much anything to diminish it.  Fear of the unknown has always been something that’s spooked all of us and politicians most of all.  That includes making ironclad predictions as to what the future holds based off of polls.  When you throw numbers into the mix that present an objective view of the future, people feel reassured.  I don’t know why, but it’s comforting.

Let’s take, for example, the case of Nikki Haley, the GOP candidate for the gubernatorial race in South Carolina.  She’s young, Indian-American, she’s telegenic and she’s conservative.  For pretty much the duration of the race, from when she had the primary tied up until recently, she’s widely been viewed as a shoe-in.  No way, the pundits said, that she was going to lose.  She has it in the bag.  People were (ridiculously prematurely) talking about her national potential in 2012.  Remember the other woman we had who was on a national ticket with only two years of governor’s experience under her belt?  I do.

And now her campaign is in trouble.  The polls are tightening, and the Democrat, Vincent Sheheen, has a real shot at pulling off a stunning upset.  Haley has run a lackluster campaign characterized by its lack of consistency, persistent rumors regarding her marriage, tax problems and a deep unease amongst the South Carolina GOP about her candidacy.  In some ways, her campaign is so dysfunctional that she, the Republican, lost the Chamber of Commerce endorsement to her opponent.  In this election cycle, losing their endorsement would seem to require some actual effort, to repel the support of such a conservative institution.

But the polls captured none of this.  The reason polls didn’t capture this is that you can’t quantify two variables in human behavior: crazy and unpredictability.  People are, very frequently, highly illogical.  Look at two other cases: Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, and Alvin Green, also in South Carolina.  Nobody (nor any reputable polls) ever would have predicted that these two would have come out on top in their respective primaries.  But they did.  And, in some ways, I’m glad.  They make for amusing news.  Mike Castle?  Boring.  I’d like another giant serving of crazy Christine, please.

Yet people cling to polls as gospel.  They’re comforting in a highly uncertain political landscape.  And while that’s fine to have what amounts to nothing more than a sometimes correlative security blanket, at the end of the day, polls are, by no stretch of the imagination, an indicator, either to the extent of political change, or what that change is going to entail for America.

The only polls that matter are the ones that are taken the first Tuesday of November in even number years.

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