Polls cannot forecast election outcomes with certainty. "They cannot and should not be used as infallible crystal balls," writes veteran Republican pollster and political consultant Frank Luntz in a New York Times
Polling goes wrong when practitioners and clients forget that public opinion surveying is an art as well as a science. Republicans were unable to predict House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor's loss because the human element in the polling was missing; the sentiments that can't be captured by technology alone.
Cantor's pollster, McLaughlin & Associates, estimated that he would handily overcome tea party-aligned economist Dave Brat by 34 points. Cantor lost by 11 points. As mistakes go, "This was a whopper for the ages. McLaughlin didn't merely get it wrong; this was quantitative malpractice — a mind-blowing modern-day 'Dewey Beats Truman' moment."
Moreover, if it's true that Cantor's poll was disclosed to cower the opposition then "not only was the poll inaccurate, the tactic was inept" because it may have spurred Brat's camp to redouble its efforts, Luntz writes.
That said, polls are not infallible. Statistically, one in 20 get it wrong. Even when conducted by the book, 5 percent of all polls wind up on the wrong side of the margin of error.
What polls can do is provide insight into the thinking of a target audience. They are a snapshot of attitudes valid at the time the poll was taken. "Without qualitative insight — talking with voters face to face to judge their mood, emotion, intensity and opinion — polls can be inconsequential, and occasionally wrong," writes Luntz.
There is a limit to what can be illuminated by simply asking dispassionate "yes" or "no" questions. Today's pollsters provide not only public opinion surveying but also strategy and public relations. Yet to get a handle on voters' real aspirations and concerns pollsters need insights into, "What anxiety keeps them up at night? What will be weighing on their conscience when they pull the electoral lever?"
That can only be revealed through human contact, "asking the right questions of the right people, and demanding honest answers."
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