We don’t have a great idea of how the midterm elections will turn out, and that’s fascinating

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.

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4 responses to “We don’t have a great idea of how the midterm elections will turn out, and that’s fascinating

  1. I’ll be the first to sheepishly raise my hand and I say I am resident of Under a Rock, USA. I DID know that midterm elections are this week. But because I don’t feel as though I’m a true resident of any one particular state at this point in my life, I haven’t been paying much (read: any) attention to the election.
    Your blog post and our discussion in class this morning really opened my eyes to the power of political polling. I knew polls existed, but I had no idea how closely people follow them. I also didn’t realize the impact they have on journalism. Even though the election hasn’t happened yet, covering the polls is still big news–news that I’m missing out on. To be a better, more well-rounded journalist, this is an area I need to begin exploring.

  2. I’m really glad you wrote about this, because I think polling is something a lot of people (myself included) are either really confused about or have misconceptions about regarding the reliability and accuracy of election polls. It is interesting that we have no scientific method for predicting the outcome of an election, but when you’re talking about an institution that is responsible for representing the population and is elected by the population, you can’t really expect there to be any one foolproof way of figuring out who’s going to win. In any case, the unpredictability of polling and the tendency to place our faith in generally unreliable predictive methods just goes to show that we prefer to trust the aggregate opinions of others because after all, if that many people think “x” is going to win, they have to, right?

  3. I agree with Lauren’s comment above. I never really knew what all goes into political polling until our class discussion and your post, and I think it’s fascinating. But, it is interesting to see how a person’s opinion can change so quickly. One ad or even a yard sign can spark a thought and sway a person’s voting choice. The work behind setting up a poll and interpreting the results is intriguing, and I think learning a little more about how these work will make me interested in seeing how these polls end up in regards to the actual results. We’ll be finding out soon enough!

  4. I agree with all three posts above. I had never really thought about what went into polling or how they work before our class discussion. It’s a complicated process and never really stops going. It is very interesting to see everything that goes into the polls and all the work behind the scenes.

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