Sunday, October 25, 2020

Do not become obsessed with the Polls unless...

I know someone who checks the polls 3 times a day to see who looks like they will be elected prez. She cares A LOT about the election. It is irrelevant to this post who she supports. 

I've asked her `if you find out that, say, Biden is up  8 points instead of 9 in Penn. or that Georgia is looking pretty safe for Trump, or that Texas is in play (really?) how will that change your life? What will YOU do differently?'

She had no answer. Unfortunately she is still a poll-watcher (I know that means something else usually, but you know what I mean.)

So who should be poll-watching or poll-obsessing?

1) To be fair to my friend, she might decide to GIVE MORE to her candidate if the polls are saying that he will lose (whoops- by saying `he' I gave away that her candidate is NOT Jo Jorgenson- Libertarian).  I doubt my friend could say to the campaign `I want to you to spend it in state X since I read that its close there' (I read that some big donors in 2016 demanded more say in where the money was spend. I doubt that's a good idea since I suspect the party knows more about how to best spend the money then the donor does.) 

2) The Biden and the Trump Campaigns SHOULD be poll-watching to decide where to put their efforts. And I suspect they are doing just that.

3) A really big donor (my friend is not one of those) MIGHT want to poll watch to decide if the candidate they want needs money. (I wonder if EITHER candidate needs money since they get so much free media.)

4) Nate Silver-being a poll-watcher is kind-of his job. And of course writing columns about them and making predictions based on what he sees. My friend is not Nate Silver. 

5) Other people who have Nate Silver's job. I can't name any- is Nate Silver the most famous... Gee, not sure what job title he has... SO this is now two questions: What is his job title, call it X, and is he the most famous person who does X?

SO- my point- DO NOT be a poll-obsessive unless the information you get will lead to an action you can take. And I suspect that mostly it does not. 

The primaries are different: If a poll says A can beat X but B cannot beat X, that might guide who you vote for. 

Misc thought: 

 I've heard the phrase `democratic pollster' and `republican pollster' These terms do not make sense. Would I call myself a `democratic Muffin Mathematician' ? My political leanings do not affect my search for truth about mathematical Muffins. Similarly, one would think that a pollster wants to find the TRUTH, even if its bad news for their employer, ESPECIALLY if its bad news for their employer, so they can help their employer fix it. The phrase `pollster employed by the X party' would make more sense-- however, whenever they are on TV they seem to always say that their candidate is doing well, even when they are not. 

ADDED LATER: Lance had a great tweet about this post: do not obsess about polls, but DO obsess bout prediction markets. I think in the past prediction markets have been better predictors but some group-think has set in so its no longer clear. (I could be wrong- but thats why I have heard.) 


  1. Nate Silver probably is the most famous at what he does, but other people do it, too. For example, Andrew Gelman does it:

    Polls have biases. Some tend to lean toward one party or the other. People who aggregate polls try to adjust for this. If a pollster is employed by a political organization, they have a conflict of interest, so this information is also relevant.

    I wouldn't assume that the candidates know best how to campaign. I think there is ample evidence from past elections that they sometimes (often?) do not. As for needing money, everyone needs money. The way campaigns are funded in this country is awful.

  2. You can mess with polls via decisions about how many independents to poll or whether to poll registered voters or likely voters.

    Do artificially high polling numbers help a candidate look more like a winner? Do some people vote for the likely winner so they can feel they were "right" in how they voted?

  3. If you can manipulate the polls so a candidate looks like a clear winner, it may discourage people from voting, since it seems "already decided". I don't know if it would mostly discourage people against or in favour of the candidate.

    1. ^this

      Those professional "poll watchers" might have a more ambitious mission, which is "poll influencer".