CRF Blog

Politics and the New Machine

by Bill Hayes

In Politics and the New Machine for the New Yorker, Jill Lepore reports on the problems of polling in this election.

Even if more people could be persuaded to answer the phone, polling would still be teetering on the edge of disaster. More than forty per cent of America’s adults no longer have landlines, and the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act bans autodialling to cell phones. (The law applies both to public-opinion polling, a billion-dollar-a-year industry, and to market research, a twenty-billion-dollar-a-year industry.) This summer, Gallup Inc agreed to pay twelve million dollars to settle a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of everyone in the United States who, between 2009 and 2013, received an unbidden cell-phone call from the company seeking an opinion about politics. (Gallup denies any wrongdoing.) In June, the F.C.C. issued a ruling reaffirming and strengthening the prohibition on random autodialling to cell phones. During congressional hearings, Greg Walden, a Republican from Oregon, who is the chair of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, asked F.C.C. chairman Tom Wheeler if the ruling meant that pollsters would go “the way of blacksmiths.” “Well,” he said, “they have been, right?”

Internet pollsters have not replaced them. Using methods designed for knocking on doors to measure public opinion on the Internet is like trying to shoe a horse with your operating system. Internet pollsters can’t call you; they have to wait for you to come to them. Not everyone uses the Internet, and, at the moment, the people who do, and who complete online surveys, are younger and leftier than people who don’t, while people who have landlines, and who answer the phone, are older and more conservative than people who don’t. Some pollsters, both here and around the world, rely on a combination of telephone and Internet polling; the trick is to figure out just the right mix. So far, it isn’t working. In Israel this March, polls failed to predict Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory. In May in the U.K., every major national poll failed to forecast the Conservative Party’s win.

“It’s a little crazy to me that people are still using the same tools that were used in the nineteen-thirties,” Dan Wagner told me when I asked him about the future of polling. Wagner was the chief analytics officer on the 2012 Obama campaign and is the C.E.O. of Civis Analytics, a data-science technology and advisory firm. Companies like Civis have been collecting information about you and people like you in order to measure public opinion and, among other things, forecast elections by building predictive models and running simulations to determine what issues you and people like you care about, what kind of candidate you’d give money to, and, if you’re likely to turn out on Election Day, how you’ll vote. They might call you, but they don’t need to.

Still, data science can’t solve the biggest problem with polling, because that problem is neither methodological nor technological. It’s political. Pollsters rose to prominence by claiming that measuring public opinion is good for democracy. But what if it’s bad?

A “poll” used to mean the top of your head. Ophelia says of Polonius, “His beard as white as snow: All flaxen was his poll.” When voting involved assembling (all in favor of Smith stand here, all in favor of Jones over there), counting votes required counting heads; that is, counting polls. Eventually, a “poll” came to mean the count itself. By the nineteenth century, to vote was to go “to the polls,” where, more and more, voting was done on paper. Ballots were often printed in newspapers: you’d cut one out and bring it with you. With the turn to the secret ballot, beginning in the eighteen-eighties, the government began supplying the ballots, but newspapers kept printing them; they’d use them to conduct their own polls, called “straw polls.” Before the election, you’d cut out your ballot and mail it to the newspaper, which would make a prediction. Political parties conducted straw polls, too. That’s one of the ways the political machine worked. [more]