In case someone’s mailing address is “Under A Rock, USA,” I’ll just take this opportunity to remind everyone that midterm elections will be held on Tuesday. If you’re a political junkie, this has been a particularly exciting election season, with Republicans fighting to take control of the Senate and Democrats fighting to keep it. There is a very distinct possibility that both parties end up with 50 seats out of the 100 in the Senate, and for those without a horse in the race, that’s probably the most exciting and fun potential outcome.
As the election draws near, I’ve found myself spending more and more time analyzing polling statistics to try to predict what might happen. There are tons of polling sites online with new data to peruse each day, and tons of other sites that will analyze those polls to death.
This is what is interesting about elections: The only way we can accurately predict what will happen is by asking people what they think will happen. I can’t think of any other situation that the news media might cover that is so reliant on people’s opinions. For example, meteorologists have dozens of forecast models they can use to predict the weather. Sports have more statistics to analyze than most sports analysts know what to do with. Elections? We’re helpless without opinions.
Of course, there is a very good reason for this. Elections are based entirely on opinions. But it’s still fascinating to think about. We know how to do a bunch of things using just computers and numbers (we can fly unmanned planes that shoot people, and that is amazing and horrifying). We can predict all sorts of events accurate to the nth degree using data produced by solid, grounded fact. But we can’t tell you who will win the election to determine which party will control the most powerful country in the world.
Even FiveThirtyEight, the data journalism website that can probably predict how frequently people take selfies based on their genetic history (get on that, Nate Silver) requires the inconsistency of human opinion to produce its election forecasts. We received a stark reminder of that Friday afternoon when they published an article claiming “Even pollsters don’t know all the details of how their polls are made.”
That’s right. The people in charge of assembling all of these opinions that produce hours of commentary each day on cable news channels don’t quite know what the best way is to go about polling. The article on FiveThirtyEight linked above goes into fascinating detail concerning the polling process- and the disputes in the industry over the best way to ask questions.
Who should you ask? How many people should you ask? Should the people asking the questions be as diverse as the people answering them? How important is the ubiquitous “margin of error” statistic? (Says one pollster, “It doesn’t provide very much insight into the value or quality of the research.”)
When you huddle around your television on Tuesday night, eagerly anticipating the election returns, remember that- with regards to predicting the outcome- you know just as much as the so-called “experts.” And when something strange or unexpected happens, as it surely will, they’ll be just as surprised as you are. That’s the nature of the beast when all it has to go off of is veritable tons of raw, fickle human opinions.