“Polls are for strippers and cross-country skiers”
– Sarah Palin, speaking at a Tea Party rally one year ago
Despite this assertion from the defeated Republican vice-presidential candidate, polls continue to be omnipresent in the coverage of electoral seasons. We are witnessing this in the United States, even more than we did recently in Quebec’s elections. The fact is, even if dismissively downplayed by some, political and opinion polls are here to stay because, in addition to being an important gauge of public opinion, they are heavily relied upon and commented on by the media to feed their news cycles. With such a strong demand for polls, their supply will continue. The market (for them) has spoken.
The United States is as fascinating a case as it gets in assessing the significance, or not, of polls in today’s electoral process. Some argue that polls influence election results. Let’s just say that with close to 500 national and state-level polls regularly cited at any time (the Huffington Post Pollster tracking model charts their average daily), hardly a day goes by without a voter hearing or reading about a new poll. This may or may not scare them into volunteering for their candidate or convincing friends and family of the importance of their vote, but it could secure their feeling of being in the lead, maybe to the point of not bothering to vote. Most likely, however, people realize that a poll is not a prediction and that it should not change their vote or electoral behaviour. “The web site is called Pollster, not Forecaster” Stanford University political science professor Simon Jackman reminds us about HuffPost’s tool.
One thing to keep in mind when reading U.S. polls is that national ones often matter less than those in, say, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio or Virginia, a few of the infamous “swing states”, those that could swing either way in the November election and where Obama and Romney will focus their campaigns. That is due to the American political system which, in all its heightened polarization, reduces the significance of polls in most states, even the giants California, Texas or New York because they rarely switch allegiance despite their huge populations. The most sought-after votes are those of independent voters, and most especially in those swing states.
So if you want anything that looks like a prediction, the polls reflecting these battleground states’ intentions are the ones you should pay most attention to.