Elections

Clinton-Trump polls tighten, but can you trust what they tell you?

Polls show the presidential race is tightening between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
Polls show the presidential race is tightening between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. Courtesy photos

If you watch the national news programs, you’ll see a lot of stories about the polls tightening as the Nov. 8 presidential election approaches. Two Wichita political experts warn not to read much into that, because presidential polls almost always tend to tighten close to Election Day.

As the saying goes, actual results may vary.

With a week to go, Hillary Clinton leads the Real Clear Politics poll average by 1.7 percentage points. At the same point in the 2012 election, President Obama was tied in the poll average with Republican Mitt Romney. Obama ended up winning by 3.2 percentage points.

Russell Fox and Ken Ciboski, professors of political science at Friends and Wichita State universities, said polls tend to become unreliable this close to Election Day.

The closer you come to an election, the less stable polls become. Political scientists know that, and that’s why we don’t pay a lot of attention to polls when you’re less than 10 days out.

Russell Fox, professor of political science at Friends University

“When you are trying to identify real microtrends and small shifts in opinion over a period of days, the closer you come to an election, the less stable polls become,” Fox said. “Political scientists know that, and that’s why we don’t pay a lot of attention to polls when you’re less than 10 days out, because at that point, we recognize that so many people are giving their responses to whatever thing just broke that they think they need to give their responses to.”

Other factors

There are a lot of other things that go on in the final days of an election that influence the outcome, they said.

One of the biggest is the get-out-the-vote effort. For example, Ciboski cited the 2014 Kansas gubernatorial election. Democratic challenger Paul Davis led incumbent Sam Brownback in most polls for the three months before the election, but Brownback won by 3.7 percentage points.

Ciboski said many analysts attribute that to a strong get-out-the-vote effort by another candidate, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who faced a strong challenge from independent candidate Greg Orman.

(Sen. Pat Roberts) had people coming in from around the country to help him, the Republican Party did, and they attribute the fact that Pat Roberts rallied people to get out there and vote ... is what brought (Gov. Sam) Brownback in.

Ken Ciboski, professor of political science at Wichita State University

“He (Roberts) had people coming in from around the country to help him, the Republican Party did, and they attribute the fact that Pat Roberts rallied people to get out there and vote for him ... is what brought Brownback in.”

Similarly, a strong get-out-the-vote effort by a Senate or House candidate in a swing state could influence that state’s presidential tally in either direction, he said.

Two types of polls

At the national level, two kinds of polls are getting attention: random-sample polls that cold-call miscellaneous people at home, and tracking polls that identify a pool of voters early in the election season and keep checking back with them over time.

Fox said tracking polls are especially susceptible to last-minute shifts. Respondents, knowing they’ll be asked for their opinions, start paying an unusual amount of attention to the daily ups and downs of the campaign.

“You’ll find that the respondents – not all of them but a lot of them – they begin to lose their grasp of the big picture and they start to speculate about how other people are going to vote and they start jumping around thinking about strategy and whatnot,” Fox said. “It forces the polls, the closer you get to an election, to be much more sensitive to the latest vibrations in the body politic.”

So should voters pay attention to polls this late in this election?

“Maybe they should never pay attention to the polls,” Ciboski said.

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas

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