Gallup steps back from horse race polling

The polling industry will continue professing to tell us what America thinks until the actual votes are in.

The top editor of the Gallup polling organization declared the other day that the nation's primary door-knocking operation was going to stop surveying who's ahead and who's behind in the course of the 2016 primary elections. That seems akin to a baseball umpire giving up calling balls and strikes.

Editor-in-chief Frank Newport informed Politico, the saturation political news and conjecture dispenser, that in the 2016 election cycle Gallup would de-emphasize the so-called horse race numbers in its daily and periodic reports.

Instead, according to the New York Times, he said it would focus on "understanding where the public stands on the issues of the day, how they are reacting to the proposals by the candidates, what it is they want the candidates to do, and what messages or image of the candidates are seeping into the public consciousness."

Mr. Newport said the switch had nothing to do with the fact that in 2012 the final Gallup projection had Republican nominee Mitt Romney edging out President Obama by one percentage point, whereas Obama ended up winning by nearly four percentage points.

But horse race polling has become uncommonly significant in the current cycle. A compilation of leading surveys has been used to determine which Republican candidates are invited to their prime-time debates and which are shunted to an "undercard."

According to the Associated Press, Mr. Newport opined that such polling is "actually a very good criteria for deciding who gets into the debates." But those left out of the first such debate screamed bloody murder at the unfairness of it all.

One of them, former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina, managed to raise her standing in the polls afterward and gained inclusion in the second prime-time debate, where she scored verbal points that skyrocketed her to near the top of the GOP field.

The poll ratings have served one other purpose: They appeared to undercut fund-raising by the bottom-feeders, with two candidates — former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — already sent to the showers.

Mr. Newport told the AP that "in the big picture, an obsessive focus on trying to be more accurate in predicting the outcome doesn't help society move forward as much as other polling would."

But how important in the scheme of things is informing the voting public how other voters feel about the candidates' positions on key issues of the day? Should the electoral process require a running account of what the electorate or a particular segment of it thinks along the way?

After all, the ballot tallies inform the American people soon enough on election day about what the prevailing public judgment is on the candidates and their positions.

In the long run, shouldn't the candidates' own peddling of their political wares, convictions and personalities be what counts, conveyed directly in speeches, debates and, perhaps less reliably, press reports of their words and actions?

The public opinion polling business and apparatus has often come to dominate the dialogue in political campaigns, especially at the presidential level. The emphasis on horse race polling sometimes seems to pollute the process almost as much as the influence of wealthy donors in propping up particular White House wannabes.

The horse race game has undoubtedly spiced political reporting, but at the price of overvaluing its reliability and constructive contribution to the quadrennial national discussion on where the nation should head in the following four years.

The old adage remains valid: The only poll that counts is the one taken in voting precincts across the country. And even then, memories of the 2000 Florida recount, settled not in the voting booth but in the Supreme Court by a split vote, leave lingering dissatisfaction in many quarters.

Meanwhile, the polling industry will continue professing to tell us what America thinks until the actual votes are in.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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