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The Five False Assumptions Behind Poll-Skewing

September 27th, 2012 - 11:20 am

Polls polls polls polls polls. In the weeks leading up to a presidential election, that’s all anyone talks about. Polls subsume all other news: Every soundbite, disaster, current event, policy, gaffe, decision and incident are merely vectors in pollspace, data which may or may not nudge the candidates’ numbers up or down a notch.

Therefore he who controls the polls can retroactively control everything that happens: Any event or utterance can be afterward spun as wonderful or ruinous if you can demonstrate that the subsequent poll showed a bounce or a dip. Polls are seen as irrefutable ex post facto evidence that a slanted news report was in fact accurate: “See? You complained when we quickly labeled the candidate’s joke as a ‘gaffe,’ but this new poll shows he dropped three points, so that proves it really was a gaffe.”

As a result, the 2012 presidential campaign is paralleled by a surrogate Poll War enjoined by each side’s supporters in the punditocracy. Whatever else happens in real life, the partisans are in an endless down-and-dirty mud-wrestling match over the veracity and reliability of polls.

The Purpose of Poll-Skewing

Each side has defined for itself an ultimate goal. Obama’s supporters in the media and online strive incessantly to demonstrate and publicize that Obama is ahead in the polls. Romney’s supporters strive to demonstrate that those polls are skewed, since the published totals are “weighted” (i.e. arbitrarily distorted) to match statistics about past voter behavior that are no longer true.

Now, if you had just landed on Earth from another galaxy, you likely would be very confused about this behavior on the part of the poll-wrestlers. Presuming there is such a thing as objective reality, there must be a certain true percentage of people who support each candidate — so what purpose is served by intentionally misrepresenting that reality if, at the end of the campaign, that misrepresentation will be trumped by an actual vote? Isn’t the purpose of polls to reveal a snapshot of how things really stand?

Oh you naive extraterrestrials, we reply. Originally, yes, polls were meant to document reality, but nowadays polls are designed to mold reality. If two candidates are in truth currently tied, but we announce that one of them is in the lead, then on election day he will actually win, because our false poll reporting affected how people vote. Get it?

Amateur Mass Psychology

No, actually, I don’t get it. This entire strategy, which dominates the 2012 election even more than it dominated earlier campaigns, is based on some amateurish assumptions about mass psychology that have never been proven, or even tested. I find it extremely odd that no one has ever questioned these assumptions — until now, at least — because so much depends on them. What if it turns out, after endless person-hours expended on the Poll Wars, that the assumptions justifying poll-skewing are completely wrong?

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