Opinion Polls: A Waste of Time?

The only poll that matters is the one in which the people cast actual ballots at election time

By Anil Madan

The editor sent me an article from The Hindustan Times hysterically captioned: ‘Biden battles approval ratings and age in 2024 election bid, trails behind Trump and Desantis, says poll’.

Clearly, this was a reference to the recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll apparently showing that President Biden’s ratings have hit an all-time low of 36% and that he is trailing both former President Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in hypothetical 2024 presidential election matchups.

How much trust should we have in such polls this many months before the election? How many months? Well, election day 2024 is 300 days away. So, just about 12 months.

I have said this many times in the past and I’ll say it again: the only poll that matters is the one in which the American people cast actual ballots at election time. We saw back in 2016 that the pollsters were dead wrong in their predictions of a sweeping victory by Hillary Clinton. Again in 2020, Trump’s victory was said to be all but assured against a doddering Joe Biden who had been accused of hiding in the basement of his Delaware home. No one asked if Mar-a-Lago has a basement, but I suppose the FBI will check it out one of these days to see if there are any classified documents down there, or perhaps some souvenirs from Bergdorf’s lingerie department. 

It was no surprise that Trump supporters rejoiced that Biden was lagging in this latest poll. What was surprising is that these are the same people who say the 2020 election was rigged. They didn’t stop to ask if the WaPo-ABC poll was tainted. So let us look over the poll results in somewhat more detail and see why they are worthless. Then we’ll discuss another poll that rebuts the WaPo-ABC effort.

Before doing so, however, let us also note that we are a full year-and-a-half away from the 2024 election. Yes, Biden and Trump have announced that each will seek his party’s nomination for the top of the presidential ticket. But 18 months is a long time. Trump has just been found liable of sexual assault in a civil case in New York. He already is embroiled in other civil and criminal suits and there are possible criminal indictments looming from the federal Special Counsel’s investigation, as well as from a prosecutor in Georgia. We have no way of knowing how the electorate at large will react to the verdict in New York or to possible indictments if they are lodged. We certainly don’t have a clue as to the effect of a criminal conviction. No candidate has run for President while wearing an orange jumpsuit. (To make escape more difficult, prison uniforms in the United States often consist of a distinctive orange jumpsuit with short sleeves or set of scrubs with a white T-shirt underneath, as it is difficult for an escaped inmate to avoid recognition and recapture in such distinctive attire.)

Of course, one might expect that the Great Unwashed of Trump nation — still clothed in the dirt of their bigotry, hatred, and prejudices — who comprise the basest of Trump’s base, will be loath to see their errant knight as anything but a conquering hero. 32% of the electorate does not a majority make.

In broad-brush terms, the WaPo-ABC poll purports to show that only 33% of respondents believe that Biden is physically fit to serve. The author of the Hindustan Times article added his embellishment that “doubts [are] being cast over his mental and physical fitness to serve as president.” The author added that respondents see Trump as more fit to serve. But that relates only to “physical” fitness. There is no indication that any question about Trump’s mental fitness was asked. It goes without saying that any poll suggesting that 64% of Americans think Trump is mentally fit to be President, must have a margin of error of about 35 points.

It is no surprise that DeSantis is seen as more physically fit than either Biden or Trump, despite having been outmaneuvered by Mickey Mouse and Goofy. Nor did the poll elicit responses about the mental acuity of a man who has picked a battle with Disney, the largest employer in the State of Florida and perhaps one of the most loved American companies. Not to be outdone by all this, former Governor Nikki Haley who has announced her own bid for president, taunted with an invitation to Disney to relocate to South Carolina. Never mind that she has no official capacity to extend such an invitation or that she does not move the needle in any of the polls. Her jabs at DeSantis tell a simple story of how marginal he is and how marginalized she is.

Of course, it may be too much fantasy to contemplate Kamala Harris squaring off against Nikki Haley, two women of Indian extraction, one South Indian, the other North Indian. Stranger things have happened. After all, the Prime Minister of the UK is of Indian origin (North), the First Minister of Scotland is of Pakistani origin, and the Prime Minister or Taoiseach of Ireland is of Indian origin. One day soon, if Scotland votes to secede from the UK, a Pakistani-origin and an Indian-origin duo will negotiate the partition of Britain. Then Scotland may unite with Ireland as part of the EU.

The Wapo-ABC poll also reports that 42% of “voting-age respondents” say that they would definitely or probably vote for DeSantis compared to 37% for Biden. There you have it, the first problem with the poll. “Definitely” or “probably” presumably reflect stable and unstable states of mind. Obviously, the reference to “voting-age respondents” is a clue that the poll includes people who are not of voting age. And the 37% exceeds Biden’s approval rating. There is a disconnect here. The poll is facially not valid.

The WaPo-ABC poll also shows that Biden is trailing behind both Trump and DeSantis in the 2024 general election matchups. With 44% of voting-age respondents saying they would either “definitely” or “probably” vote for Trump, compared to 38% for Biden, and 18% undecided. In the Biden-DeSantis hypothetical matchup, 21% are undecided.

History is not a useful guide. Polls 18 months out have little predictive value. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama rebounded from comparably low approval ratings but ultimately won 18 months later. The Presidents father and son Bush, both had 70+% approval ratings. The father lost; the son won re-election.

A bit of digging reveals that the WaPo-ABC poll included all adults in its sample of 1,006, rather than just registered voters. Registered voters in the sample were only 900. Subgroups in the sample, such as young people, independents, Hispanics and Black Americans were so small as to have no statistical validity. One well known pollster commented: “The poll really is trash, and I don’t say that lightly because I’ve had respect for their polling in the past.”

Added to all this is that the WaPo-ABC poll had a sample size of one-sixth of comparable sample sizes of peers. There are polls with even larger sizes.

The lack of credibility of this poll was underscored by the release of a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll showing Biden leading Trump, and with a higher approval rating.

This poll found that 43% of Americans currently approve of Biden’s performance in office while 48% disapprove.

The problem here is that both polls used sampled voting-age US adults rather than the standard samples of registered voters or likely voters. samples.

One must wonder whether the WaPo-ABC poll was nothing more than an effort to generate headlines.

One also must wonder why people pay attention to polls until election day when the only poll that matters is seen in real time.

Of course, if you are Donald Trump or one of his supporters, that final poll is valid only if you win.

In 2020, Donald Trump tried the “It’s my ball and I’m leaving because I don’t want to play Democracy” game. It may help us all to think of polls as a proxy for the tote board at the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, or any other horse race. No matter what the odds predict, at the end of the race, there is a winner (sure, sometimes a tie), a second and a third. When there is cash on the line, bettors accept the results.

When the future of a country is at stake, we might do well to understand when the race has been run and is over, more than when the race has begun. At this point, the race is just about to begin, and all the horses are not in the starting gate yet.

Keep your eye open for a thoroughbred.


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 12 May 2023

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