The problem with polls

INDIANAPOLIS – In a campaign season, polls exert an almost hypnotic pull on political observers’ attention.

We pundits tend to approach polls with the same sort of obsessiveness that medieval monks devoted to looking for signs of divine intention. We track for signs of momentum, for points of weakness in this or that candidate’s campaign and for indications of what a vast, contradictory and often confused electorate.

Studying them can be a lot of fun, a bit like playing a challenging board game with good friends on a rainy afternoon.

But the point of board games is that they really don’t matter all that much. Regardless of who wins at Monopoly, all the pieces go back in the box when the game’s over and the play money won’t buy so much as a piece of chewing gum in the real world.

It’s only in this world, where both the buildings and the cash are real, that the wheeling and dealing really matter.

So it is, too, with taking the public pulse.

Elections matter.

Polls, not so much.

Part of the problem is inherent in the nature of polling. Polls aren’t designed to be permanent indicators of anything. The cliché is that they are only snapshots, fleeting glimpses of what a group of people selected to be representative of a larger whole think or feel about a candidate, an issue or an event.

But that fleeting glimpse is, by definition, always somewhat blurred — perhaps now more than ever.

First, there’s the challenge of determining what a representative sample might be. The only way to predict which people might vote in an election is to look at who has voted in the past.

But voter turnout can resemble a kaleidoscope. The patterns and hues change from moment to moment – maybe not greatly, but enough to matter.

Barack Obama brought significant numbers of new voters into the process in 2008. It appears that Donald Trump is doing the same thing this year.

They aren’t the same voters, of course, which adds to the confusion. And because many of them haven’t been involved in the process before, it’s hard to determine what a representative sample of them might be.

That’s one reason so many polls taken at roughly the same time show different results. The pollsters all are making slightly different calculation about who actually might vote come Nov. 8.

The second reason polls offer only a distorted glimpse of a race is that it’s gotten harder and harder for pollsters to make sure they’re getting representative samples of the citizenry. Advances in technology and the increasing fragmentation of American society have made it much more difficult to reach certain segments of the population. Many of our citizens now no longer have home phone numbers because they live with and through their handheld devices, some of which they consider as disposable as paper napkins.

Those folks, though, have the right to vote, even though they’re hard for pollsters to track.

That many Americans are hard to find accounts, in part, for the fact that most polls significantly underestimated the size of President Obama’s victory in 2012. Many of his voters were just hard to reach.

Then there’s another dynamic at work that pollsters are reluctant to discuss. People lie.

If there is heavy social pressure for people to conform to one point of view, a distressing percentage of people surveyed will tell pollsters what they think they’re supposed to say, not how they really plan to vote.

People know they’re supposed to care about, for example, the national debt or the environment, but in the enveloping confidentiality of the voting booth, they’ll often cast their ballots for low taxes and high benefits or to keep burning those fossil fuels as if there were no tomorrow.

So, what’s the moral of this story?

Just this: Citizens have only one duty in an election — to pay attention so they can do their duty by voting their consciences.

Positions matter.

Experience matters.

Character matters.

Pay attention to those things, pick the candidate who most closely reflects your values, and don’t get caught up in the ping-ponging of the polls.

If you do focus on the things that matter, the country will benefit.

And you’ll feel a lot better about your vote.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.