1,000 People Are Not 'Most Americans'... And Polling Is No Substitute for Democracy
Here’s the headline from the Washington Post that arrived in my email this week:
“Most Americans say Biden has not accomplished much since taking office, Post-ABC poll finds”
Upon clicking on the headline, to read more, the actual story at the WaPo continues with these sub-heads:
“Most Americans say Biden has accomplished 'not very much' or 'little or nothing' during his time in office”
“Most Americans think Biden has not created more jobs, improved roads and bridges, or made electric cars more affordable"
Of course, anyone who’s been following the news over the past 2 years, even occasionally, would have to know that so far, after the first 2 years of the Biden presidency, the country has successfully weathered COVID; we are at a 50-year low unemployment rate, and gas prices are back where they were before the so-called “inflation” (some call it gouging) spike.
In addition, there is now historic funding for fighting climate change; the greatest year of job growth under any president in history; the strongest year of GDP growth since 1984, and the CHIPs Act is now accelerating domestic manufacturing capabilities, especially in new 21st century technologies deemed essential.
Biden passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which is creating thousands of jobs repairing bridges, roads, ports and airports, while expanding broadband access to all. The list literally goes on, and on, and on.
So, one might ask, how is it possible that “most Americans” think that Biden’s record includes none of these things? Were most Americans asleep for the past two years? Did they know of these accomplishments 3 months ago but now have completely forgotten? Are Americans simply so gullible that the latest headline, no matter its content, is always the shiny object that swings public opinion in a new direction?
Or is it possible that the polls upon which these headlines are based are not actually representative of what “most Americans” think or feel — that political polling is fundamentally flawed and exists for purposes other than accurately reflecting public sentiment. There are countless examples of public opinion polls getting it wrong, especially on the important stuff.
Multiple polls during the 2016 election cycle mistakenly indicated a massive win by Hillary Clinton. In 2022, the polls predicted an unstoppable “Red Wave” that turned into a historic disappointment for Republicans. Much has been written about flaws in polling methodology, from the way questions are worded, to the type of people who are available and willing to take these surveys (spoiler: these aren’t your typical Americans). A Berkeley Haas study found polls to be “95% confident but only 60% accurate.” A key finding was that the timing of polls had a direct impact on the “margin of error” (the small print that usually accompanies polling results). In some cases, timing resulted in ultimate accuracy of only 50%!
But it’s not so much the various poll results that ought to be in question. It’s more the role of the polls, how they help shape the general population’s assessment of what is happening; and as such, how they are routinely accepted as a substitute for the actual voice of the voting population.
There are 4 primary actors that define how political campaigns in America today operate: The first three are polling companies, mainstream news media, and politicians themselves. These groups support each other, in the context of a never-ending 2-year election cycle.
It goes something like this:
First, Americans vote and the general election is over. The vote tallies are real. Almost without exception, registered voters have cast their votes and their votes are accurately tabulated. The vote counts may have been negatively influenced by gerrymandering and other forms of voter suppression, but for better or for worse, conspiracy theories aside, actual Americans actually vote in the election. What happens next is where the democratic process is led astray.
With the election behind us, mainstream news media, flush with advertising revenues from the election just ended, cannot afford to let their audience wane. The last horse-race may be over, but there’s no time to waste before promoting the next one. So, “reporting” begins, focusing on the next election two years away, and which politicians might or might not be contenders, as well as what issues might end up defining the political environment during the campaign.
But this can’t happen without some reference point other than initial announcements by candidates. No, the reference point, upon which predominant campaign “news” is based, ends up being public opinion polls.
Many, if not most, polls related to politics are either commissioned by mainstream news media or candidates themselves (usually via a political party or PAC invested in “winning"). Without these polls as a reference point, the news media’s job would be much more demanding, and pundits would have far less to opine on. Likewise, poll results provide talking points for candidates and political parties alike.
The 4th group that benefits from polling directly is political fundraisers. The ability of “bundlers” and other fundraising mavens to manifest the huge sums of money that drive our political system, election after election, is largely influenced by polls pointing to which promising candidates do or do not deserve funding from the financial “whales” that drive the two-party version of American politics.
The cozy relationship between polling companies, mainstream news organizations, political fundraisers and candidates, basically defines how modern democracy in America works. And of these four elements, polls are the essential driver that fuels the others.
This week’s Washington Post/ABC poll about Biden’s supposedly poor standing among “most Americans” is misleading at best and an outright lie at worst. Pollsters interviewed a total of 1,000 people. That’s not “most of America.” It’s 1,000 people — a relatively infinitesimal sampling of individuals who have been carefully selected to render an opinion that can then be monetized.
The sentiments of this tiny group, literally representing .00000417 percent of eligible voters, are then extrapolated into supposedly representing “most Americans.” It’s patently dishonest, and yet this practice is the lifeblood of our current political system.
An honest Washington Post headline would have read: “Tiny Sampling of Voters Extrapolated to Suggest Possibility of Lack of Voter Support for Biden.”
But it wasn’t an honest headline. Today’s headlines based on polling data typically sound predictive, and as such, impact voter perceptions of reality. Note that the actual Washington Post headline suggesting “most Americans” not supporting Biden appeared one day before Biden’s State of the Union address on February 7th.
Now, if you’re a pollster, a candidate, a mainstream news media outlet, a pundit or a political fundraiser, and polling is essential to your livelihood, then you’ll probably go to your grave defending the outsized role of polling in our democracy. You’ll argue that there’s science behind polling, and blah, blah, blah. But you’ll never concede that 1,000 people doesn’t truly represent the American population.
Who does represent the American population? The collective group called “Registered Voters” does. Over 205 million of us. That’s the group that matters when we have an election. If polls are such an accurate measure of voter sentiment, then why bother with elections at all? Why not just see who’s ahead in the polls every couple of years and declare those people the winners?
The answer is: because polls are not, and have never been, a legitimate expression of democracy. They are an extrapolation of micro-data, given seeming legitimacy by those who stand to benefit most from the very existence of polls. Meanwhile, actually voting is a direct expression of democracy, both individual and collective. It’s the primary civic engagement engine that powers real democracy. No civic engagement, no democracy.
But, you might also ask, what are we supposed to do, just get rid of polling?
There actually is an alternative approach. Leave polling alone, but provide every registered voter with a private and secure online Advisory Voting account, enabling each voter to weigh-in directly on the very issues polling claims to address, along with other issues that voters themselves suggest.
Why ask a minuscule sampling of voters, when you can ask all of them? Advisory votes would be non-binding in nature, but an accurate count. Yes, it might take a while for all registered voters to find out about this new outlet for their individual and collective voices to be heard, and to start using their advisory voting accounts on a regular basis. But widespread voter participation would eventually be inevitable.
And yes, the devil is always in the details. But those details can be managed by a new Public Trust that transparently oversees and administers the Advisory Voting system, in accordance with a published Mission Statement and set of Operating Principles.
The technology already exists to accurately count voters online, in order to accurately understand voter sentiment around any issue. When Advisory Voting takes root, it will provide a long-overdue upgrade to democracy as we know it, without altering any existing institutions. Except, it will signal the end of polling, at least in politics. Polls will obviously continue for marketing purposes and the like. But they will no longer be the primary reference point for understanding voter sentiment. And they will no longer be considered an acceptable substitute for real civic engagement.
After all, why ask a polling company, when you could ask the voters themselves?
Richard Lang is the CEO of Democrasoft, Inc., author of Virtual Country: Strategy for 21st Century Democracy, and co-founder of the Advisory Vote initiative.