I admit it. I am addicted to public opinion polls.
My addiction has never been stronger than it is now, in the run-up to the 2024 election. I need my daily dose of results, like a hypochondriac who takes his temperature over and over again in the hope of detecting the slightest changes in his health.
My mood rises and falls with each new blip. The more I hear that democracy will be on the ballot in November, the more my moods swing and the more likely I am to keep anxiously checking the polls.
I am not alone. America is poll-obsessed.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni got it right in 2016 when he observed, “We’re in a period of polling bloat, but bloat is too wan a word. Where polling and the media’s attention to it are concerned, we’re gorging ourselves into a state of morbid obesity.”
“Our demand for polls,” Bruni argues, “guarantees a robust supply of them: Churning these surveys out is great guaranteed publicity for news organizations, research companies and academic institutions. How many Americans are aware of Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., or Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J., only because they commission and put their stamps on polls?”
Harvard historian Jill Lepore writes that “The modern public opinion poll has been around since the Great Depression. … Pollsters rose to prominence by claiming that measuring public opinion is good for democracy.”
Lately, Lepore adds, “The Sea of Polls is deeper than ever before. … From the late nineteen-nineties to 2012, twelve hundred polling organizations conducted nearly thirty-seven thousand polls by making more than three billion phone calls.”
Thousands and thousands of dollars are spent putting polls into the field, analyzing them, and marketing them. Their results make news even if they really can’t tell us what will happen in November.
So, what can the polls tell us now, at the start of February 2024, some nine months before we will all actually start voting?
Let’s start with the Morning Consult/Bloomberg Swing States tracking poll. Released on Jan. 31, it found that Donald Trump is leading Joe Biden in all seven swing states (North Carolina, Nevada, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona and Pennsylvania) in which it takes surveys. As the Miami Herald put it in its coverage of the poll result, “These states, with their combined 93 electoral votes, are likely to determine the outcome of the coming 2024 election.”
The Morning Consult poll found that Trump’s lead is largest in North Carolina, 49 percent to 39 percent. He is ahead by single digits in the other six states.
But The Herald pointed out what it called “a catch in the Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll.” A majority of voters in all seven states said, “They would be unwilling to cast their ballots for Trump if he is dealt a guilty verdict in court. … 25% of voters who supported Trump in 2016 said they would withhold their support this time around if he is found guilty.”
Even so, for Biden partisans like me, these results are what the Herald calls in a bit of understatement, a “worrying sign.”
One day after the Morning Consult results broke, my poll obsession was fed by news of the latest Quinnipiac poll, which told a very different story.
Quinnipiac reports that “Biden holds a lead over Trump 50 – 44 percent among registered voters in a hypothetical general election matchup.” As The Hill says, “That’s a shift in the incumbent’s favor from December, when Quinnipiac found the same Biden-Trump hypothetical ‘too close to call,’ with Biden at 47 percent support and Trump at 46 percent.”
This poll also found that both Trump and Biden were viewed more unfavorably than favorably and that among respondents who liked neither of them, Biden now has a 13-point edge. Poll watchers like me will remember in 2016 that the group of people who liked neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton, the Democratic hopeful, broke decisively for Trump when they voted.
Will the people who are most disaffected by the presidential candidates nominated by our major parties turn out to play a decisive role in 2024?
On Sunday, NBC released a poll that further confuses the state of the race, finding that Trump leads Biden 47 percent to 42 percent. This amounts to the biggest lead that the former president has registered in the 16 polls NBC has so far conducted about the Trump-Biden matchup. And, in more bad news for the incumbent, a large majority said they thought Trump would do better at handling the economy and had the “necessary mental and physical health to be president.”
Three different polls, three different pictures of the state of the presidential race over which to obsess.
Further complicating matters, over the last several years polls have gotten it wrong as often as they have produced an accurate picture of the public’s political and candidate preferences.
“The sheer number of pollsters,” according to Fortune, “creates voter fatigue, tedium, and less willingness to respond.” In contrast to the situation that prevailed in the mid-20th century, when the response rate to national surveys was more than 90 percent, “a typical response rate is now in the single digits,” as Lepore observes.
Yet despite these problems, Lepore concedes that “polls are wielding greater influence over American elections than ever.”
Some commentators believe that that influence is salutary. For example, three decades ago political scientist Sidney Verba claimed that “surveys produce just what democracy is supposed to produce—equal representation of all citizens. The sample survey is rigorously egalitarian; it is designed so that each citizen has an equal chance to participate in an equal voice.”
But what kind of voice is it that surveys offer to citizens?
Polls do not invite citizens to deliberate in a way that democracy demands. Instead they turn us into preference machines, ready to unthinkingly rate political candidates the way we rate restaurants, hotels and movies.
As Professor James Berger puts it, “Genuine democracy means informed democracy. Not information about who’s ahead, but information about the actual condition of the country. … Every moment spent discussing the latest polls is a moment not spent trying to figure out and depict what is actually going on.”
In the end, constant polling distracts us from the task that Berger identifies and turns politics as a spectator sport. But because democracy will indeed be on the ballot in November, no one can afford to be a spectator.
Neither democracy nor the psychic health of democratic citizens are well served by the blizzard of polling that marks the landscape of every American election. Our politics would be better off if we polled less and if we acted, organized, volunteered, and voted more regularly.
I for one am going to do just that — but I will probably still be watching the polls, anxious as ever about what they might tell me about the future of our country.
Austin Sarat (@ljstprof) is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Amherst College.
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