September 21, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Political polling without political wisdom is misunderstanding

We need better questions about the coming shutdown.

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In yesterday’s edition of the Editorial Board, I said that recent news about a “rightwing backlash” against Donald Trump, in reaction to him calling a six-week abortion ban in Florida “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake,” is unworthy of your time. Yes, there’s muttering from antiabortion groups, but in the end, his enemies are theirs. They will figure out ways to accommodate him.

This claim of mine may be difficult to believe, however, given the apparent power of public opinion polling, which consistently tells us that consistent majorities of Republican voters support either extreme restrictions on abortion, in this case none after six weeks of pregnancy, or complete bans on it. In light of such empirical data, Trump is said to be pitting himself against very people he needs — his supporters. Why believe me when you can believe what people say about themselves?

It was refreshing to see this headline from Stuart Rothenberg, whom I’d argue is one of the founding fathers of modern political polling: “Breaking news: The 2024 election isn’t tomorrow.” 

My retort is this: What people say about themselves changes over time. What they say right now is almost certainly not what they will say when the moment comes in which to begin thinking about making choices? This is just the way things are and everyone knows it. Many of us, however, pretend not to, because, well, we gotta talk about something. There’s a difference between political polling and political wisdom, though. One without the other is likely to result in misunderstanding.

So it was refreshing to see this headline from Stuart Rothenberg, who I’d argue is one of the founding fathers of modern political polling: “Breaking news: The 2024 election isn’t tomorrow.” In his column for Roll Call, Rothenberg said: “The most frequently asked question probably is the presidential hypothetical ballot test — ‘If the election were today, whom would you vote for?’ The problem, of course, is that the election is not today or next week or next month. It’s nearly 14 months away, and during that time, a lot of things can happen.”

He said another problem is “the way most in the media treat polling about the 2024 presidential contest. Every survey must be dissected, every subsample examined with a microscope.” But elections “create their own dynamic. As an election approaches, voters become more engaged, more energized. They sometimes change their priorities and the message they are trying to deliver when they go to the polls.”

Not only do “most in the media” treat today’s polling as if it predicts things a year from now. They treat today’s news as if it can. This is a result of seeing everything through the lens of winning and losing. The question, for instance, isn’t why the House Republicans want to shut down the government. Instead, the question is how a shutdown will affect the 2024 election. Shy of war and plague, however, today’s news is almost certainly not going to influence anything a year from now.

The irony is that it could – if the right questions were given the right priority. From the voter’s point of view, the big takeaway from news stories about the House Republicans wanting to shut down the government is not that they want to shut down the government. 

Instead, the big takeaway is that a shutdown, as a result of the House Republicans wanting one, will affect something next year. While the voter’s attention is directed toward some unknowable future, their focus is not on something that they can know right now, which is that the House Republicans want to shut down the government. 


If the focus of voters were on the House Republicans and what they are doing right now, and not the future, the question might keep developing to include asking why people who want to represent constituents in the government are so hostile toward that government. 

And if we started asking that question, we might start asking what motivates constituents to support such hostility, and that question takes us to a place where “most of the media” are truly uncomfortable — a lot of Americans who say they want to live in a democracy don’t really want to live in a democracy, not when they have to share it. If they can’t control it, no one can have it, and they’ll burn it all down.

I don’t think this view is shared by most people most of the time. I think it’s shared by a minority of Americans who have, for their own terrible reasons, given up on liberal democracy. They no longer see the point. 

While this view is terrible, it wouldn’t be as terrible if it were clear to most people most of the time that it’s a minority view – and that the House Republicans represent anti-democracy. With such clarity of understanding, most people most of the time could make choices so that those who’ve given up on democracy can’t ruin it for everyone else.

But such clarity isn’t possible when everything is seen through the lens of winning and losing, according to which what’s happening right now is not as important as what will happen at some point in the future.

If the focus were on what’s happening right now, instead of a year from now, what’s happening right now might affect things a year from now. In such a case, most people most of the time might have come to the right conclusion about the House Republicans, to wit: They ask to be sent to Washington not to govern, but to sabotage governance. 

Such focus isn’t possible when “most in the media,” as Rothenberg said, treat today’s polling as if it can tell us something about outcomes a year from now – when every “survey must be dissected, every subsample examined with a microscope.” We’d rather sift through the empirical data and ignore the wisdom of our shared experience in America.

The result is that something is always being misunderstood.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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