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The Pluses of Pre-Election Horse Race Polls

The Pluses of Pre-Election Horse Race Polls

Senior Scientist

Pollsters have a great reverence for pre-election horse race polls. They think such polls provide very useful information to those who are seeking to understand what is going on in a state or country, and the usual close relationship between what pre-election polls show and the final voting outcome helps validate the accuracy of polling in general.

But not everyone shares that conviction. Some critics of horse race polling argue that continually feeding polling data back to the public creates a situation in which people can become passive sheep, mindlessly following the majority rather than thinking for themselves.

Critics argue that knowledge of how others intend to vote can result in all manner of negative consequences, including making elections less interesting, creating a so-called bandwagon effect, and, in general, muddying the waters of what they assume should be a "pure" voting process.

It is argued that media reporting of pre-election horse race polls has an impact on the election process itself. The contention is that, deluged by polls during an election, citizens will change their votes to conform to what the polls tell them the masses are thinking. They will write off any thought of voting for a candidate who is down in the polls, and will quit thinking about the race altogether if the polls show that it is lopsided.

Presumably, no one expects the citizens in a democracy to decide on their stances on issues and candidates in complete isolation. But observers who criticize the role of polls in this process seem to argue that organized and quantified feedback from other citizens -- in the form of poll results -- somehow goes too far, and that it encroaches on the ability of individuals to reach their own rational decisions.

It is unclear, however, at what point the use of feedback from fellow citizens in a democracy begins to go too far. Many of polling’s harshest critics, for example, seem to endorse the concept that it’s perfectly fine for citizens to come together in person to discuss issues. A professor at Stanford University, James Fishkin, is largely critical of the ability of average citizens, interviewed on a one-by-one basis, to have opinions worth paying much attention to. But he is very enthusiastic about the idea of creating deliberative forums in which citizens meet and talk in a modern-day town-hall setting, based on his belief that citizens involved in such discussions might arrive at better, more informed decisions.

But just how much does this in-person deliberating differ from the broader input from friends and neighbors provided by polls? I think not much. They are all part of the same process.

Polls, in fact, are in many ways an extension of a town-hall, deliberative process. Polling simply distills the opinions of all of one’s neighbors (across the state or across the nation) in an accurate fashion -- an expanded version of what the voter would find out by asking neighbors in the community where they stand on the issues of the day. The idea of town meetings in which people get together to discuss their opinions is essentially as old as America itself. The idea of polling as an expanded town meeting is much newer, but not categorically different.

In the broadest sense, I disagree with those who believe it is harmful for people to know how others in one’s society are thinking and feeling about the issues of the day, including their voting intentions. Most of us pick up a good deal about how those around us are thinking and feeling by osmosis, and by normal family and water-cooler discussions. Polling just solidifies that process and makes it more systematic.

There is also little evidence to support the idea that knowledge of how others feel on an issue, or how they intend to vote in an election, affects the recipients of this knowledge. In the election context, for example, there is sparse evidence that pre-election polls affect voters’ decisions on the person for whom they’re going to vote. In fact, as George Gallup used to point out, if polls created a gigantic bandwagon effect in which citizens formed or changed their opinions in order to go along with the masses, there would eventually be nothing but consensus on every issue and a 100% vote for a specific candidate. In other words, according to the bandwagon theory, if Candidate A had 51% of the vote in pre-election polls, then more and more of the 49% of those voting for other candidates would begin to vote for Candidate A. Ultimately, if this process played itself out, the logical result would be that no one would want to be in the minority. Everyone would end up voting for Candidate A.

This doesn’t happen, of course. Indeed, in many elections, front-runners lose their front-runner status, and candidates far behind in the pre-election polls charge ahead and eventually win. In 1992, according to all the polls conducted in the fall, third-party candidate Ross Perot clearly was not going to win the presidency, yet his percentage of the vote climbed as Election Day grew nearer, and he eventually claimed 19% of the vote -- the highest third-party percentage since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. And, in this year’s run-up to the Iowa caucuses, Howard Dean initially had the clear lead in the polls, yet as election day drew nearer, there wasn’t a bandwagon-like shift of more and more Iowa voters toward Dean, but rather, a shift away from the leader toward John Kerry and John Edwards.

It’s also true that the conjecture that individuals in society are swept along willy-nilly by the views of their fellow citizens embodies a pretty negative assumption about the intelligence of the average citizen. I don’t think most of us are likely to quickly change our opinions based just on our discoveries about what other people think and feel. In fact, some of us actually may enjoy -- rather perversely -- the idea of being independent and going against the crowd.

But, in the final analysis, I believe there is essentially nothing inherently wrong with citizens’ using polling information as input into their thinking process as they meditate on issues and candidates -- if they want to. Deciding or casting a vote based in part on an understanding of how other citizens are thinking is just as legitimate a basis for a decision as are other sources of information or insight -- if not more so. Social psychologists have long noted that we humans have a social comparison drive based on the fundamental need to compare and contrast opinions and attitudes against those of relevant others and relevant reference groups -- particularly when we are unsure of where we stand on an issue. Using polls as accurate representations of how others feel on an issue helps fulfill this need, and lets the citizen be aware of and react to the accumulated wisdom of his or her neighbors. In many ways, this is a quite rational and useful process.

The fear that social comparison leads to robotic conformity is also less intimidating if one has an essential faith that the public is wiser and more thoughtful than some would make it out to be. Citizens can and should be presumed to be able to handle polling information in a responsible and reasonable way. To argue that polls are inimical to democracy puts scant faith in the ability of the average citizen to deal with the free flow of information. The public can in fact do a good job of making distinctions and figuring out what polling information it wants to use and what information it wants to ignore.

Additionally, in most major elections, the campaigns themselves continually run private polls that provide them with valuable insights into the dynamics of the election. Why leave the public in the dark? If there weren’t well-done, objective polls, citizens and journalists alike would inevitably attempt to characterize where the public stands on issues or candidates based on whatever information they could dredge up. These efforts would vary widely in terms of their accuracy. The country would be rife with rumors and assumptions about how the public stood on issues without any way of substantiating the accuracy of those rumors and assumptions.

In other words, well-done, scientific polls are a plus for society because they -- at the very least -- provide accurate information about what one’s fellow citizens are thinking, rather than just supposition and conjecture.

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