Opinion | Polls are ruining our politics. Stop paying attention. – The Washington Post

You might have noticed that I studiously have avoided dissecting the avalanche of 2024 polls. I don’t plan on deviating from this approach — at least not until mid-2024. And you should consider ignoring the nonstop flood of polling and the rickety analysis dependent on it. Here are five reasons we should all go on a poll-free political diet for at least six months:

First, the polling field is broken. Or, if you listen to pollsters’ complaints, it is consistently misapplied and misinterpreted. Polls didn’t come within shouting distance of the right result in either 2016 or 2020. And they misled voters about the fictitious red wave in 2022. Whatever the reasons — call blocking, excessive hang-ups, incorrect modeling of likely voters — even polls taken much closer to elections have consistently turned out to be far off base. The fixation on low-cost, horse-race coverage might satisfy the political media’s desire to project insider expertise or to appear neutral (hey, it’s the voters who say these things!), but there is no excuse to recycle highly suspect information from sources known to be flawed.

Second, voters tell us utterly contradictory things. Around 60 percent tell pollsters that four-time-indicted former president Donald Trump should drop out. But then nearly half say they’ll vote for him. Which is it? There is a hefty amount of research that what voters say they want doesn’t align with how they vote. Whether it is gas prices or the war in Ukraine or the candidates themselves, respondents often give contradictory answers, suggesting they either don’t understand the question, don’t really know what they think or respond based on tribal loyalty.

Third, even if you think polling is somewhat reliable, there’s no evidence that polling more than a year (or even eight months) before a presidential election is accurate. Democratic consultant Simon Rosenberg (one of the few to debunk the red wave in advance of the 2022 midterms) recently wrote: “At the end of the day polling is only a snapshot into a moment, and cannot predict anything. Things change all the time in politics — change is the constant.”

Obviously, there is much that has yet to happen with regard to the economy, Trump’s indictments, the war in Ukraine and more. (And how people imagine they will react is a far cry from how they actually respond.) At this stage, we know little about voter intensity and turnout. So what is the point of filling newscasts and newspapers with what amounts to white noise?

Fourth, polling seems designed to make a point. Asking voters whether they want an imaginary, younger Democratic candidate when the only candidate who will get the nomination is Joe Biden is effectively asking people to underscore the point that the president is old. (Oddly, Republicans aren’t often asked whether they’d rather have someone not accused of 91 crimes.) It tells us nothing about what voters will do when presented with a choice between an 80-year-old, sane and accomplished incumbent running against an only slightly younger, unhinged, accused felon. (Apparently, because Trump has an indictment problem, “balance” means treating age as an equal liability for Biden.)

The most important reason, however, to minimize attention to polling has to do with the mission and credibility of journalism at a critical time in our democracy. What voters know might be wrong — objectively wrong. They tell pollsters we are in a recession. They tell us Biden was involved in his son’s business ventures. These beliefs are unsupported by evidence. This surely indicates that the media could try harder to explain what is going on. (Maybe more reporting on the changes happening around the country would be in order.)

Certainly, respectable media outlets cannot control where voters get their information, but evidence of such widespread confusion and ignorance indicates that we have a deficit of accurate, reliable information in the electorate. If the truth is getting lost in the shuffle, maybe parroting Republicans’ false claims (for the sake of “balance”) or fixating on polls is counterproductive.

Polling obsession might feed the desire, as media critic Jay Rosen said, to turn politics into “a savvy analysis of who was up, who was down, who’s winning or likely to win, the horse race, the spin, the strategy — all of that,” but it does not provide information with which voters can seriously, critically evaluate what is going on and what is at issue in the election. (Rosen expounded on this issue at length in a recent interview on my weekly podcast.) Surely, more time could be spent providing voters with a basic understanding of the charges, the court process and the implications of electing an indicted candidate.

When the stakes are so high, and the fate of democracy hangs in the balance, continuing to gamify politics with meaningless polls does little to improve journalists’ reputation or inform voters. As Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch aptly put it: “The news media needs to stop with the horse race coverage of this modern-day March on Rome, stop digging incessantly for proof that both sides are guilty of the same sins, and stop thinking that a war for the imperiled survival of the American Experiment is some kind of inexplicable ‘tribalism.’ ”

We all would do far better to apply our energy to stemming the tide of disinformation and facing hard truths about a MAGA movement that manages to bamboozle millions of Americans — and remains the greatest domestic threat to democracy we’ve seen.

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