This last election season was not a great one for political polls. The presidential election polls were off for the second straight presidential election, leaving many with doubts about the effectiveness of polling. Many state senatorial polls were also off, leading to expectations that were not met by the actual election outcomes. I spent a lot of time listing to the 538 Politics Podcast heading into the election and spent a good amount of time thinking about and reading about likely election outcomes. In the end, the election was within the expected range of the polling average, but toward a tail end, and it left many people asking why we spent so much time thinking about polling, setting our expectations in certain directions, and whether polls are a useful exercise at all.
The reality is that polls are important, and they reflect a part of our psychology that is always in action, even if we are not actively sampling American’s for their views.
Politicians are often criticized for changing their positions, but in reality, we all have fluid positions on everything regardless as to whether we are thinking about what clothes we like to wear, marginal tax rates, and whether current public health measures are effective or just for show. Politicians, like all of us, are eager to conform to majority, but they don’t always have perfect polling on what is the most preferred course of action or opinion. Our recent polling experiences show us how difficult it can be to figure out what the majority want. As Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write in Nudge, “in part because people think that everyone has their eyes fixed on them, they conform to what they think people expect.”
The difference between most people and politicians is that politicians really do have more eyes on them than any average person. Their efforts to figure out what people expect is more visible, as are their changes in opinion or stated beliefs. But like politicians, most of us are trying to figure out what people expect of us, and most people are trying to match those expectations (at least in most areas). We are not actually in everyone else’s heads, but we can talk to them, observe the stickers they put on their cars, read their social media posts, and get an idea of what other people believe and what they think is cool. We can do our best to emulate that example, and the spotlight effect puts pressure on us to conform to that inferred identity, belief, or behavior.
We don’t actually know what everyone thinks and believes. We can all follow trends and fads (like the Paleo Diet) that we don’t really like, but that we think everyone else likes and expects us to follow. We are all trying to figure out what everyone else thinks, and find a way to go with the flow for most aspects of our lives. For most of us, we are not really being watched all the time while this process plays out. But for political figures, this process can be very public and highly scrutinized. So even though our polls have had some frustrating misses the last few presidential cycles, accurate and timely polling is important. And while we might not like the idea of a flip-flopping political figure, we probably all prefer a political figure who understands what their constituents want and expect, and polling can be a helpful way for them to better understand their constituents and better adjust to their views while representing them.