The Polls Are Dead, Long Live Politics

The results of the U.S. election won’t profoundly change the course of American governance over the next generation. That hardly anyone s...

The results of the U.S. election won’t profoundly change the course of American governance over the next generation. That hardly anyone saw these results coming, might. The extraordinary polling errors in recent elections on both sides of the Atlantic portend a dramatic change in the way politics operate—if we’re lucky.

To see why, you need first to set aside whatever dudgeon you harbor about pollsters’ systemic failure to predict electoral outcomes in recent cycles. U.S. pollsters got it more or less wrong in 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018 and now in 2020. U.K. pollsters have fared just as poorly, botching their calls in general elections in 2015, 2017 and 2019 and the Brexit referendum of 2016. None of this has had much practical effect. Attempts to make it seem so are best understood as an abuse of polling to cover for political malpractice of some other variety.

The more pressing problem for Western democracies is the symbiosis that has developed in recent decades between the public-opinion and policy worlds around issue polling. This refers to the preposterous range of policy matters on which pollsters claim to be able to “measure” public opinion.

Recent examples of topics subjected to this breed of analysis, with pollsters’ names omitted to protect the guilty: Is the American criminal-justice system too tough or not tough enough? How many Britons would take a coronavirus vaccine? Is there a lesson for humanity in the coronavirus pandemic? And, picking only one option of course, is the pandemic or the economy more important to you when you choose a candidate?

This sort of issue polling has become far too important an input into policy making. Politicians lean on issue polling to tell them what voters want them to do. Advocates lean on issue polls of varying quality to persuade politicians that such and such is what their constituents truly desire.

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Newsrust: The Polls Are Dead, Long Live Politics
The Polls Are Dead, Long Live Politics
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