Consider what are probably the four highest-profile elections of the past year, at least from the standpoint of the U.S. and U.K. media:
- The final polls showed a close result in the Scottish independence referendum, with the “no” side projected to win by just 2 to 3 percentage points. In fact, “no” won by almost 11 percentage points.
- Although polls correctly implied that Republicans were favored to win the Senate in the 2014 U.S. midterms, they nevertheless significantly underestimated the GOP’s performance. Republicans’ margins over Democrats were about 4 points better than the polls in the average Senate race.
- Pre-election polls badly underestimated Likud’s performance in the Israeli legislative elections earlier this year, projecting the party to about 22 seats in the Knesset when it in fact won 30. (Exit polls on election night weren’t very good either.)
At least the polls got the 2012 U.S. presidential election right? Well, sort of. They correctly predicted President Obama to be re-elected. But Obama beat the final polling averages by about 3 points nationwide. Had the error run in the other direction, Mitt Romney would have won the popular vote and perhaps the Electoral College.
Perhaps it’s just been a run of bad luck. But there are lots of reasons to worry about the state of the polling industry. Voters are becoming harder to contact, especially on landline telephones. Online polls have become commonplace, but some eschew probability sampling, historically the bedrock of polling methodology. And in the U.S., some pollsters have been caught withholding results when they differ from other surveys, “herding” toward a false consensus about a race instead of behaving independently. There may be more difficult times ahead for the polling industry.
It sounds like there are multiple areas for improvement:
1. Methodology. How can polls reach the average citizen two decades into the 21st century? How can they collect representative samples?
2. Behavior across the pollsters, the media, and political operatives. How are these polls reported? Is the media more interested in political horse races than accurate poll results? Who can be viewed as an objective polling organization? Who can be viewed as an objective source for reporting and interpreting polling figures?
3. A decision for academics as well as pollsters: how accurate should polls be (what are the upper bounds for margins of error)? Should there be penalties for work that doesn’t accurately reflect public opinion?