Gallup’s Exit from Presidential Polling Puts Debate Commission in Tight Spot

Gallup’s recent move to back out of presidential primary polling raises certain questions surrounding whether public polling should or should not be used to determine who makes the presidential debate stage.

Since 2000, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has used a 15 percent polling threshold for candidates to make the debate stage, a threshold that has been impossible for independent candidates to reach. The five polls, in which the CPD determines which candidates make it to the stage, are chosen by Dr. Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor-in-chief.

However, Newport said Gallup will not conduct candidate polling during this presidential primary season and possibly refrain from polling in the general election as well. The announcement is a surprise to many because Newport recently testified in support of the CPD’s use of polling:

“Public polling is by far the best method of measuring a candidate’s support among the electorate prior to Election Day. Polling involves a scientific process through which polling experts seek to determine, mathematically, the best estimate of the public sentiment on a particular topic at a specific point in time…The science of public polling is constantly evolving as the methodology continues to improve.” – Frank Newport, Gallup

Henry Enten, at Fivethirtyeight, says Gallup’s exit from horse-race polling is bad for everyone. Gallup employed rigorous methods and had successful years despite recently experiencing off-the-mark polls during 2012, he explained.

Since other polling organizations ... are also moving away from horse-race polling, the CPD's options may be limited.

However, the organization in the most precarious position may be the CPD.

The CPD promised to release its debate criteria a full year prior to the debates. That deadline has now passed and many Americans are asking for two things: 1) open up the debate process to include otherwise qualified non-major party candidates and 2) announce the debate criteria in a timely manner so these candidates can prepare.

With its chief pollster out, how will the CPD respond? Since other polling organizations like the Pew Research Center are also moving away from horse-race polling, the commission’s options may be limited.

These recent events not only shed light on a flawed debate system, but they might be a catalyst for change. The CPD is in a tight situation and Gallup’s exit from presidential polling might provide the opening voters and reform groups have been waiting for to open the debates to candidates outside the major parties.