Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Do Polls Matter on Election Day?

The latest poll is in. The City Paper published the results today. This poll shows dramatically different numbers than the previous polls, and that shows what I have been saying all along. Of course, those in the lead will say they are gratified, but they will fear that their supporters will stay home on election day figuring the thing is in the bag. Those behind, fearing their supporters will jump ship to a winner or stay home discouraged, will say that the polls don't matter since it is only the votes on election day that count.

Who is right? Well, they all are. Polls don't elect people. They can, however, affect the outcome if the voters respond to the polls by staying home.

Communication theorists refer to this tendency we have to avoid expressing opinions when we believe we are in the minority as "The Spiral of Silence" (Noelle-Neumann, E. (1974). The spiral of silence: a theory of public opinion. Journal of Communication, 24, 43-51). The rise of election tracking polls has definitely gone hand in hand with the general decline in voter turnout in America over the past 40 years. There are many reasons why people choose not to vote, but keeping a minority opinion to yourself is probably one of them.

Let me point out one more thing and then plead again for everyone to vote so that we can get a candidate that we really want. This poll asked 564 people who they want as mayor. That is interesting information, but I would rather know who all the people of Nashville want. And remember, even if this polls is perfect, it has a margin of error of 4.2%. That means that any number in the poll could be off by as much as 4.2%...up or down. So, let's look at those numbers to see what the poll really tells us:

Candidate Support:

Bob Clement 23%

Karl Dean 21%

Howard Gentry 21%

‘Buck’ Dozier 16%

David Briley 12%

undecided 5%

Kenneth Eaton 1%

Cheryl Lynn Tisdale 1%

Note: Poll of 564 likely voters was conducted July 19-22 and has a margin for error of +/- 4.2%. (City Paper, July 24, 2007)

If the Clement, Dean, and Gentry numbers are high by 4.2%, while the Dozier and Briley numbers are low by 4.2% (and remember that this kind of shift is likely among numbers since a vote shift from one candidate to another is both an increase for one and a decrease for the other), then all of the numbers start to look much closer together.

Further distortions come from the formulas that pollsters use to determine the significance of each voting demographic to the outcome. Briley and Gentry do well among younger voters according to this survey. When the results are calculated, the poll uses some (undisclosed) formula to weight the significance of support in different demographics based on past voting behavior. Since young voters traditionally remain pretty inactive on election day, especially in local elections, this poll very likely skews their impact on the numbers downward. If you want to change the results, change the assumptions. If a larger than expected number of young voters turn out to vote, we could just as easily see Gentry and Briley in the runoff. If a larger number of older voters turnout, then Dozier and Clement may benefit more. The point is that the voters actual decision to vote still matters and shapes the outcome.

I am not saying that this poll won't end up being correct, but I would hate for any survey of 564 people to be correct because it led people to vote as if the poll were an instruction sheet. Everyone needs to make his/her own decision and vote that way. That is the only way democracy really works. Polls are fun to talk about, but if the polls shape how we vote, we are giving our decisions away.

In each election, there are many polls taken. Often on a national level, one of them ends up being pretty close to the results. The problem is that you never know which one will be accurate until after the results are in.

Don't let anyone (polls, bloggers, pundits) decide who you want to be your mayor. You get to make that decision on your own. With just a little over a week remaining, you still have time to consider all of the candidates thoughtfully, and make your own decision. If you want that decision to help shape Nashville's future, just be sure to act on it.

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