I’m fascinated by what they do (and don’t) tell us about the American people, and I think there’s good evidence that they’re a valuable part of our political system.
I know, I know — a lot of In Boxers disagree.
And there’s an increasingly feisty debate in the wider political blogosphere, about the roll of public opinion surveys in our civic culture, and the influence of poll-watchers like Nate Silver, who is currently experiencing something of a backlash for the strong Obama lean in his prognostications.
This is all very small beer in the wider scheme of thing, but I will say this: 2012 will provide a very good test caste for, if nothing else, how accurate these polls are. Can they really find and measure the sentiment of citizens?
Are there hidden pockets of Americans — a “silent majority” that could send the 2012 election in an unexpected direction.
It’s a good test case because the polls are essentially universal in their estimation that Barack Obama has a whopping advantage ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
Scroll through the last two weeks of surveys and you will find that the vast majority of surveys in battleground states show the race either tied or (in most instances) leaning toward the Democrat by 1 to 5 points.
(The exceptions are Florida and North Carolina, where surveys show a tie or a modest lean toward Romney of 1 to 5 points.)
Similarly, the national polls have slowly gravitated back toward a modest Obama tilt. Of five surveys released on Sunday, three showed Obama leading by 1 to 3 points. Three showed a dead tie.
Which means that we have a near-perfect test model for assessing the accuracy of these political tools.
If the pollsters have it right, Obama will almost certainly win (by narrow margins) at least enough states to capture a second term.
If the pollsters are wrong, and Romney finds pockets of passion, momentum and support that the survey models couldn’t identify and measure, then he wins a major upset and the pollsters go back to the drawing board.
Some statisticians will argue against this assessment. They will point out that even Nate Silver gives Romney a not inconsiderable chance, roughly 20%, of winning the election.
I don’t think that washes. If Romney pulls off a big sweep — especially if he pushes successfully into states like Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania — I think the polling industry will need to do some serious soul searching.
And so, too, will political reporters like myself, who have come to rely on polls to help us understand the state of American politics.