Polling, the Astrology of Politics

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California, and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist

The most recent polls on the California gubernatorial race are out and anyone who thinks he or she can predict what is going to happen on June 5th is probably smoking too much of the state’s newly legalized cannabis.

With the state in pretty good economic and fiscal shape, voters simply aren’t engaged in a race that has few defining issues among the major Democratic candidates and two main Republicans contenders who are seeking to out-Trump each other in hopes of sneaking into a run-off, earning the opportunity to be trounced by a Democrat–most likely Gavin Newsom. If the electorate does get focused on this contest, it is most likely going to be in the last days of the campaign—after many absentee voters have sent in their ballots.

Then there are the polls. For a number of reasons, polling has become less reliable in predicting electoral outcomes.  The avalanche of telemarketing calls, the growth in cell phone use and the public’s general disgust with politics have made it much more difficult to get people to respond to pollsters and to sit still for an in-depth interview—let alone open their front door to an unfamiliar interviewer.

Automated phone polls have a mixed track record.

On-line surveys are the latest attempt to adapt to a changing communications landscape, but they have their own drawbacks, particularly a tendency to over-represent zealous respondents in a way that gives a louder voice to the most opinionated on both sides of the political divide.  And, perhaps, swings the pendulum toward voters with access to, or comfort with, computers.

The 2016 Presidential Election gives ample proof that polling is an inexact science.  Most polls got the outcome wrong. The USC-LA Times Poll received kudos for predicting a Trump victory, but it was actually considerably off base, since Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. And that’s what nationwide surveys measure; they do not and cannot predict individual state electoral vote outcomes.

There is also the issue of turnout models. The accuracy of every poll is contingent upon a sample that accurately predicts turnout.  In 2018, the past is hardly prologue.

Who is going to vote?  Will #MeToo, anti-Trump fever and the teen mobilization after the Parkland shooting result in a turnout that is younger and more female than that for “normal” non-presidential primaries, as has been the case in several recent special elections?  Will backlash against President Trump and the presence of prominent Latino candidates—including former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in the governor’s race and State Senator Kevin de Leon, challenging Senator Diane Feinstein—produce a heavy Latino turnout?  Will the GOP be successful in getting enough of its dwindling base to get excited over gas taxes and sanctuary cities to produce a respectable turnout?

Maybe the most striking thing about this year’s gubernatorial campaign is the inability, so far, of any candidate to run away from the pack.  Newsom is widely expected to finish first in the primary, but despite his Bay Area base, strong labor support and advantageous ballot title, the Lieutenant Governor hasn’t been able to get above 30% in the polls.  Villaraigosa, with name recognition and Latino support, has seemed to be Newsom’s most likely run-off opponent, but hasn’t been able to shake loose from Republican John Cox in a tight race for second place.

While, at times, the former Los Angeles Mayor has seemed to be an “old-school” candidate, Villaraigosa is being boosted by a heavy independent expenditure campaign funded by wealthy business leaders and charter school advocates.  Businessman John Cox now has President Donald Trump’s endorsement and the ability to self-fund his campaign, but it remains to be seen whether there are enough GOP voters to get him into the November run-off.  Assemblyman Travis Allen, a conservative zealot, is a major thorn in Cox’s side.  State Treasurer John Chiang has appeared to be flailing, while former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin suffers from a lack of money and minuscule name recognition.   There remains a sense that the battle for the second run off spot is a close call between Villaraigosa and Cox, but that is pretty much guesswork—a mélange of statistical hits and misses.

Candidates, campaign consultants and political junkies obsess about the polls, but accurate polling becomes more and more impossible. In the end, the voters will have the final say or, maybe, the last laugh. Like it or not, that’s democracy.

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