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Florham Mansion, on the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University. (Photo: Wikimedia).

Woolley & Cassino: Are Pollsters the Worst Part of the Campaign Season?

By Peter Woolley and Dan Cassino, November 10 2021 9:51 am


Pollsters may be your least favorite part of the campaign season, but Patrick Murray of the Monmouth University Poll was wrong to apologize for misleading the public and the campaigns with his recent poll of the governor’s race in New Jersey. And he was wrong to suggest that perhaps election polling should be scrapped.

First, what happened in the New Jersey polls did not happen in Virginia. While the New Jersey polls clearly underestimated support for the Republican candidate for governor, Virginia polls of gubernatorial preferences were spot on – except for one, FOX News, which overestimated support for the Republican candidate. In fact, Patrick Murray polled in both states, offering a good estimate of the contest in Virginia, but one possibly outside the calculated margin of error in New Jersey.  (Likewise, our own FDU Poll estimate pushed the boundaries of the margin of error, exaggerating support for the Democrat.) Any explanation for the miss in the New Jersey polls, has to be proved as well in the Virginia polls.

In other words, pollsters in both contests essentially used the same methodologies, similar assumptions about likely voters, and similar interviewing methods. But the Virginia polls made good estimates and the New Jersey polls did not. It can’t be that the methods are obsolete or flawed in one state but the same methods are fine just a little way down the I-95 corridor.

In fact, New Jersey and Virginia are similar in many ways, with Republican voters concentrated in the south and west, and Democrats predominant in the north and east. Both states dropped into Biden’s column decisively a year ago. And they share an off-year election for governor which serves as something like a referendum on a new President. At this point, we’re not sure what “went wrong” with polls in New Jersey, and without exit polls, which have not been released at this writing, we won’t be able to tell.

Murray is also wrong to suggest that perhaps pollsters should not be polling elections, lest they perchance do not offer an accurate picture, and unfairly affect the campaigns and voters. Every independent pollster has gotten more than a few calls and messages from angry campaign managers claiming that the most recent poll is hurting them unfairly—especially when they are clearly losing.

It is true that election polling is not the most important work we do. Almost every pollster will tell you that issue polling, where we find out what the public thinks about important matters of the day—between elections—is more important, as it informs the work of legislators, directly impacts laws, and is a pulsing connection between people and government. Election polling is less important than issue polling because there will be, eventually, an election, where the preferences of the public will be known. But election polls are important because they fill in the narrative of the election—what voters are saying are their important issues and concerns, and how those concerns are shaping the race. Without that role for election polling, the public would be deprived of part of its voice.

Without election polling, the public would be left with just two things, feelings and lies. Feelings are fine. They aren’t data but they are human and unavoidable. However, lies from campaigns are commonplace, whether it is promises that can’t and won’t be kept, denials of obvious wrongdoing, or claims that their candidate is the clear favorite (and therefore you should bet on their horse).

Polls do interfere with campaigns. Most often that is to check the false claims of campaign press secretaries and other spokespeople. It is also to inform journalists and other commenters, and to try to understand the dynamics of the public debate—what things really matter to people.

The biggest challenge for independent pollsters now is the lack of confidence in the polls – that’s bad for the public discourse, and we regret that we’ve added to the problem with a polling miss here in New Jersey. But that’s not a reason to give up – it’s a reason to do better.

Just as democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the others—so independent pollsters may be the worst element of a campaign – except for all the others.

Peter Woolley is the Director of Fairleigh Dickinson’s School of Public and Global Affairs. Dan Cassino is Executive Director of the FDU Poll and Professor of Government and Politics.

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