Poll takers will tell you that their polls are mere snapshots of a moment in time. A photo is the perfect metaphor for an opinion poll. What is any picture really a picture of?
We assume, when the news punditry drops poll numbers about us, that they’re presenting an accurate snapshot. But, that assumes a lot about the snapshot and (even more importantly!) the photographer and their equipment. What about the recording medium they’re using? Color photography and black & white photography see reality very differently.
The angle a photographer chooses – that’s vital, too. One can editorialize on the downlow by shooting a subject from above them or below them. How close a photographer gets to a subject – that also influences what the finished photo will look like. And what was the photographer trying to “see” when they took their photo? And did they succeed?
Polls are a perfect analog! Never mind a poll’s results, what did the poll actually poll? That’s what its data are actually describing.
Polling Joe Biden
An excellent example: Joe Biden. The punditry holds up the polls (like Harry Truman holding up that photo the morning after he, in fact won the 1952 election proclaiming that Dewey won. It’s a historical fact. The sitting President’s party almost always loses big in the off year election following the election that put them in power. “Backlash”, the punditry will muse. Therefore, it’s automatic that the Democrats were going to lose big in this year’s election.
If you recall, at first, the punditry insisted that the Democrats would lose the House AND the Senate. Now, there’s both polling and on-the-ground reporting that suggests the Democrats won’t lose the Senate; in fact, they might just increase their majority. Two more Senate Democrats would mean The Democrats would no longer be held hostage by corrupt DINO’s Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Joe and Kyrsten’s more moderate politics would be a whole lot easier to accept as genuine if there weren’t so many Koch dollars in both of their pockets. Koch dollars speak very loudly, as we all know. Their voices drown out everything like a climate-driven rising tide.
A Question Of Questions
What none of the polling companies share: what specific questions they ask. Is that because they’re proprietary? Or is it because the polling companies don’t put much thought into their questions. Perhaps they see only their mission: reveal how a particular atheist gen-z-er feels about various topics. Do you like Joe Biden? Do you approve or disapprove of the job he’s doing?
What does that question even mean? Applied to each and every one of us, we could ask outsiders every day if people approve or disapprove of how we’re doing at our jobs. Considering as they don’t know anything about us, our jobs, how our jobs should be done, maybe asking them to judge us isn’t such a good idea. A question like “Do you approve or disapprove of the job Joe Biden is doing?” seems easy. But, even hard core, tribal Democrats are telling Biden not to run for re-election in 2024. What does that actually mean? And can a poll question capture it?
Why Do Democrats “Disapprove”?
When Democratic poll respondents “disapprove of Biden”, they’re not saying they’d vote for a Republican in the next election. And they’re not saying they blame Joe Biden for the mess America’s in. Joe Biden isn’t trying to overthrow our democracy. He didn’t kill Roe and he hasn’t allied with Putin to try and undermine our democracy. Biden’s low approval numbers reflect genuine unhappiness with the times we’re living in. Over the past six years, we’ve had to deal with a world wide pandemic, a re-ignited cold war between Putin and the West, Climate change’s sooner-than-expected arrival and the American right wing’s Hail Mary toss toward the “permanent minority rule” endzone.
And, all this has played against a backdrop of treason. But for Russia, Trump would never have been POTUS. I wonder, do poll questions about Trump ever frame Trump first as a verifiable liar? If they don’t, what Trump are they asking about? Not the one we know.
If we don’t know precisely what a poll question asked, how can we judge its results? Never mind any poll’s results, what was the poll actually polling? If we can’t answer that, the polling is pointless.