Elections and polls: Who cares who’s ahead?


Why do voters need to know who is winning or losing a political campaign before the votes are counted?

In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential race, media outlets and polling firms have been almost apoplectic in their worry over how they missed the final result.

Yes, they were relatively on target about the overall national vote. But the presidency is not won by the popular national vote; it’s a state by state, Electoral College election, and virtually all major polling firms completely missed the results as they pertained to Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida. They were also way off in regard to just how decisively Trump would take Ohio.

Pollsters and many in the media are insisting that they have to figure out what went wrong. The real question is, why does it matter?

For candidates and campaigns, polls are useful for a number of reasons. For a candidate, it’s helpful to know where you stand at various points of the race, so you know whether you need to adjust your message, spend more money, or redirect your advertising or campaign appearances.

But polls serve absolutely no purpose for the general public at large. Their only result is to either instill overconfidence in the supporters of the candidate deemed to be winning, or depression or anxiety in the candidate polling behind.

Otherwise, what possible benefit is there to voters knowing who is winning or losing at any particular point during a campaign? Do voters change their minds based on whether the polls say their preferred candidate is ahead or behind?

For the national media, polling provides a weekly storyline they can use to develop endless theories about the brilliance of one campaign and the failure of the other. Throughout the 2016 presidential race, the Hillary Clinton campaign was constantly ahead in the polls and lauded for its prowess in raising millions more dollars than the Trump campaign, which would almost assuredly result in victory through the sheer magnitude of television advertising, direct mail and other get-out-the-vote efforts that only money can buy.

The Trump campaign, by contrast, was consistently reported to be trailing in the polls, in danger of losing even traditionally Republican states, and criticized daily for its poor fundraising, hateful tone and a campaign organization in general disarray.

The broadcast and cable news programs breathlessly teased their nightly news shows or Sunday talk shows by announcing, “Stay tuned for our latest poll results – next!” as though the polls were the most important information they could bring to the electorate.

It is routine for candidates who are polling behind to say that the only poll that matters is on Election Day. But there is also no truer statement when it comes to elections.

Most media organizations have completely lost their way when it comes to covering presidential campaigns. They either focus entirely on the horse race – who’s ahead? – or look for the most scandalous story or the biggest gaffe of the day. The media in general considers it beneath them to share the messaging or issues that campaigns want to talk about.

But that’s what they should do more often. The things that candidates or officeholders want to share with the public are important. Community newspapers regularly consider and often publish columns from state and federal officeholders, allowing them to present their accomplishments or opinions directly with our readers. Most large newspapers won’t do that, except on rare occasions.

Why not? Is there something wrong with allowing an elected official or a candidate to communicate directly with the public through the media two or three times a month? Sure, politicians are always going to present their opinions or achievements in the best light. But are readers not considered smart enough to digest a message from a politician without having it filtered by reporters or pundits who think they have to translate it for us or offer their opinion about it?

There are plenty of opportunities on every newscast and with every day’s newspaper for others to dissect political actions or decisions. Can’t a small portion of time or space be set aside to hear from the politician, unfettered and unfiltered, beyond a brief sound bite or quote, and without a line of hounding questioning on a topic that an interviewer has deemed important?

Aggressive reporting that challenges a candidate’s rhetoric is important. But it’s not the media’s only function. Unfortunately, most of the media believes that all that is important is playing an endless game of “gotcha” and, during campaigns, telling us who’s ahead and who’s behind. That’s the standard playbook for covering government and politics.

Along with rolling back political correctness, the greatest result from the Trump victory might be the realization among voters that polls are not sacrosanct when it comes to determining election outcomes. A lot of money could be saved by news organizations by dropping their pollsters. Wouldn’t it be interesting to go through a campaign without knowing what the polls say?

For a November election, it’s irrelevant to voters who’s ahead in June, July, August, September or October. All that matters is who wins when the votes are actually counted, and that’s a lesson from 2016 that the media should take to heart.


By Gary Abernathy

Gary Abernathy is a community newspaper editor in Ohio’s Civitas Media group of publications. Reach Gary at 937-393-3456, [email protected] or on Twitter @abernathygary.

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