George Graham

When Polls Go Bad


The polls have ruled in America for decades, but they seem to have lost their magic. Tea Party candidate Matt Bevin’s big win in the Kentucky governor’s race is the most recent example of a new trend. The polls – not one but all – had predicted a comfortable victory by Bevin’s opponent, Democrat Jack Conway

Earlier, Mitch McConnell  had easily won re-election over Alison Lundergan Grimes, despite the polls’ predictions of a squeaky-close race.

And the phenomenon is not restricted to Kentucky. The venerated Gallup poll had called for a close Mitt Romney win over President Obama in 2012.

The polls are failing abroad, too. They were wrong about last May’s British election –  and the Scottish independence vote.

In a recent article in US News and World Report, Joseph P. Williams observes:

Once a seemingly infallible cornerstone of the political system, public opinion polls have racked up a few big-time fails in recent years, embarrassments that compelled a leading firm to conduct an internal audit to find out what went wrong.

What’s going on? For one thing, response rates are way down. Way, way down.


In this morning, Paul Rosenberg cites “deep distrust of the political establishment.”

Polling has become so unreliable that Gallup probably isn’t going to try and predict the winner of next year’s presidential election, Rosenberg says. But he sees signs of possible improvement as new and more effective polling methods emerge.

Will the new methods mean better poll results?

And will better polling mean better government? Possibly, because politicians would be hopelessly lost without polls. They rely on the polls to tell them what goodies to promise, what to be outraged about, and so on.

And there’s even more to it than that. Political “leadership” – in America at least – often relies on a mixture of propaganda and polling. Tell the voters what you want them to believe and poll the voters to find out if they believe it. If they don’t believe it, tell them in a different way, hoping that will be more effective.

It looks as if the voters are catching on – and turning off .

Turnout is at obscenely low levels in US elections. Could Americans – could the world – be getting tired not only of the pollsters but of democracy as well?

What do the polls have to say about that? And can we trust the polls to be right?

Click for Williams’ article.

Click for Rosenberg’s article.

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for