This is a “hot take” so don’t hold me to it. But I’ve had this idea ever since the results started coming in Tuesday evening and it became clear that the Blue Wave was not happening. Instead, we got the kind of election that most of us were assuming back in March. What happened? Why were the polls so bad?
I haven’t seen any analysis and it will doubtless turn out that there were a number of reasons that the polls to not do a good job predicting the election results. But I want to suggest that a big one may be feedback.
The idea is a common one in physics. The act of measuring an attribute of an object changes that object. For example: you can’t see what something looks like in the dark. You have to shine a light at it.
Under most circumstances, this doesn’t matter. It’s normally only at the quantum level that the effect is big enough to be concerned about. As a result, this is normally an issue that is only discussed along with quantum mechanics.
Could it be that the polling results affected voting?
During this election, a large percentage of the news coverage talked about the polls. Remembering 2016, everyone was clear that the polls could be wrong. But maybe they weren’t.
Maybe instead, the polls got people to change their behavior. In Arizona, most of the late-arriving mail-in ballots (Saturday through Election Day) favored Trump by a wide margin. This could just be votes from people who normally mail-in ballots. Elderly people often use mail-in voting.
But it could also indicate that people who might have sat out the race were motivated to vote because they didn’t like what they were seeing.
The other side is also possible: people on the left didn’t think they needed to vote because there was obviously a big lead for Biden. But this seems unlikely because (1) most liberals were suspicious of the polls and (2) the turn-out was high.
Just a Thought
I don’t know if this was a big effect or not. I do, however, feel certain that public polling and election models are bad for our society.
They feed “horse race” coverage. People watch them the way they watch a sporting event. And by “people” I mean “everyone I know including me.”
The media is really good at giving us what our basest instincts crave. This is the political equivalent of gorging ourselves on refined sugar. On the other hand, we are already well sorted in terms of policy preferences. And we know that the kind of policy detail we might hear on The Weeds will never come to pass. So it’s understandable that we would pour those political white crystals directly from a C&H bag into our mouths.
But we need to find a way forward without polls. Because for whatever reason, they aren’t very good at predicting modern American election results.