State of Maine: Polls, darn polls, and statistics

Who are we, and what do we want? Those are the questions on the mind of every candidate, campaign staffer, political analyst and pollster as we approach the one-year mark before the next national election.

The answers are many. We care about health care. The economy. We care about the “direction” of the country. We worry about immigration and crime, taxes and borrowing. This is what the political experts say we care about.

There are candidate debates and campaign messages and legions of talking heads to tell us what we heard and what it means. They tell us who’s up, who’s down, who’s in, who’s out. Who “won” the debate? Who is in the top tier? Who is “electable”? Despite all this analysis, the experts sometimes get it spectacularly wrong. What’s a voter to do?

Armchair quarterbacks of the home-grown kind have only a vague sense of how polling works. We know that a small sample of voters, chosen at random, is meant to stand in for the opinions of the rest of us. But we’re suspicious.

Once upon a time mostly everyone had a telephone, the kind attached to a wire that came out of the wall. With that lone connection to the populace, polling was a matter of considering factors such as geography and time of day to be sure a true random sample was obtained.

Now pollsters must use a wide variety of routes to get to voters: landlines, cell phones, computers. They also must consider ways in which polling may be skewed by the selectivity of the public when a communication device rings, pings or dings. Gone are the days when a ringing phone was answered. Now we wait for caller ID, look to see if we recognize the caller’s number, or wait to see if we hear Aunt Martha’s voice begin to leave a message; then we pick up.

What if polls are only answered by the lonely, the bored, the idly curious or the despondent? How does that affect the results? What if, overwhelmed with calls, we are misrepresenting our political intentions in order to foul up the poll?

Some polls are not about the questions at all, but rather are designed to undermine opinion of a candidate. “Are you planning to vote for candidate Talksalot? Would you still vote for him if you knew Talksalot does not recycle? Leaves his cat out at night?”

Look, despite all the strategy that goes into planning a poll, it is hard to believe that many people who pick up their phone are thrilled to hear the robotic voice of a computer, often starting in mid-sentence, assuring you that it has just three questions.

Like everything else in the political world, polls are not cheap. Fortunes are spent on elections. The greatest benefit of our excessively lengthy elections with endless TV ads featuring “fat cats” with cigars, worried retirees and angry laborers is their massive economic benefit.

Campaign staff, advertisements, consultants, strategists, advisers, lawn signs, brochures, buttons, T-shirts, the travel, the hotel rooms, the meals — all the paraphernalia of election season — is an economic bonanza for suppliers of goods and services. Now that there is no real off-season for political campaigns, which start the day after Election Day, they are never-ending, year unto year, until death do us part, which along about October begins to seem a good option.

There are aspects of campaigning that are a mystery to most of us out here in voter-land. Why is it that no campaign ever hires us, the average human, to tell a campaign what the average human thinks? Herewith, some free consulting. First, we are not listening to you until a year from now. Second, we hate your stupid ads and even more so your relentless appeals for money. Third, we don’t believe anything you say. You’re welcome.

Does all this frenzied activity before the election pay off? It must, right? Think of it! All this effort and money to win an election and fall, exhausted, through the front door of Congress only to find that for two years (in the House) or six (in the Senate) you are doomed to do precisely nothing at all.

We can spare you the effort of trying to figure out what the electorate cares about. It’s not that complicated. We care that our children come safely home from school each day, knowing a little more than they did the day before. We care if we have work, and if we don’t, we care whether help is available to tide us over until we do. We care if we can afford a tank of oil in February, a visit to the doctor if we’re sick, and gas for the car. That’ll do for a start.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Retired nurse and former independent Maine State Senator.

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