Have you seen any polls lately?
Did you get our poll?
You’re not going to cover that poll, are you?
Do you know who’s in the field polling right now?
When reporters start getting peppered with questions about polling on a regular basis, it’s a safe bet that Louisiana’s latest election season is about to blast off into outer space. Right now, polling matters to politicos in Louisiana, with races for governor and the Legislature slated for the fall.
That also means that news outlets are hungry for the kind of public opinion data that picks winners and losers or sheds new light on policy issues. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Other times, not so much. Polls can be difficult to interpret, the money behind them can shape the final product, the questions asked may be skewed and—as we’ve learned in recent years—these surveys can also be wrong.
Or consider this takeaway, courtesy of (Lake Charles) American Press reporter Jim Beam, the dean of Louisiana’s political press corps: “Two recent polls show that Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has an edge over his two Republican opponents. It’s not a big lead, but a comfortable one. However, how you view polls is often determined by your political viewpoint.”
Edwards’ two declared GOP opponents, businessman Eddie Rispone of Baton Rouge and Congressman Ralph Abraham of Alto, have done their own polling as well. Those data sets were used to convince donors of paths forward and to help campaign managers determine strategy.
As a rule of thumb, our team at LaPolitics.com endeavors to avoid polling coverage until the election season hits a sweet spot sometime between July 4 and Labor Day. By then, there’s usually enough polling from previous months to explore trends and averages. Plus, voters usually start paying attention around this time.
But should voters place much stock in polling? Are reporters giving the surveys too much attention? “Everyone knows the numbers are as unreliable as ever,” wrote Walter Shapiro in a piece published last week by The New Republic, “and yet the political press still hypes every little rise and fall.”
The issue over spotty polling is probably linked most closely to President Donald Trump, whose election defied many public opinion surveys. “Why is polling in presidential nomination fights so unreliable?” Shapiro asked in his item on the polling industry. “For one, no one knows who will vote.”
Speaking to CBS News, Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, said he doubted the political staple of polling would improve any time soon. “I just think the country is too complex now to call a couple of hundred people and ask them what they think,” he said. “There are so many ways and different people who show up and vote now. The way turnout works now. The abilities we have now to turn out voters. The polling can’t understand that.”
The slow death of traditional telephone polling—with the rise in cell phones and the difficulties of getting people to simply answer—has been predicted by many for more than a decade. The practice isn’t exactly dead and in the ground, though, as suggested by the recent coverage from Politico of the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s annual meeting. Web- and text-based polling experiments have been ongoing, but they cannot yet replace traditional methods.
That day may be coming, however, according to Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey. “I think this year is the year that it’s become inevitable,” Murray told Politico. “We’ve been building towards it, and I think anybody who’s being realistic right now realizes that we now see the horizon for using telephones for election polling.”
While the warning signs were witnessed during the last presidential election cycle, similar polls are still grabbing big headlines. Louisiana author and journalist Tyler Bridges recent obtained an “independent poll” that showed “a clear majority of Louisiana voters don’t want Donald Trump to win a second term as president.”
That jives with national reporting. The Washington Post, for example, recently published a story explaining the “brutal 2020 numbers” the Trump campaign is facing. To be certain, Gov. Edwards, on some level, can relate. Back in 2015, most of the polls released publicly early in the primary gave him little to no shot of winning.
Like Trump, Edwards emerged victories, despite the findings of some polls. That doesn’t mean the horse race question—meaning which candidates are winning versus losing—is an unimportant one. But perhaps it does mean that we should all take a deep breath before diving too deep into the numbers.
CLARIFICATION: In last week’s column regarding the Republican Governors Association and this year’s gubernatorial election, the author failed to mention that the RGA will not be endorsing a candidate in the primary.