Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight (Image: Supplied)

After yet another polling miss, is it time to ask: what’s their point? Have they just become a journalistic bulk-weight, filling up space, drawing attention, taking up time?

Sure. They retain their value as emotional insurance in an age of uncertainty. Better than a psychiatrist, really. Over the past year, they’ve soothed the world that everything would be OK, that as Joe Biden says repeatedly, “America is better than this”.

They’re like modern morality plays, bulking out the media product with comfort readers crave. No wonder media outlets here and around the world are keen to put their brands on them and pay the cost.

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Polls — even this week in the US — are not necessarily “wrong” about what they’re measuring. Biden’s popular vote margin probably will end up around the average forecast of 6-7% with an electoral college vote at Obama levels.

But even when they’re “right” at the national level, they’re wrong at the local or fragmented level where journalists need to tell the story. They encouraged a binary understanding, in this case, of the US and Trump. But they miss the underlying reality that the election exposes: just about no one has changed their mind.

Over the past four years, older voters have died, younger voters have turned 18, people move, voting has become harder in some places and easier in others. Shake it all up, and the needle shifts. Journalists will now turn that accidental outcome into a new collective wisdom about America.

Future polls will shape — and be shaped by — that new wisdom. They’ll be weaponised into political conflict as they have been in Australia. (Remember the 30 consecutive Newspolls test that doomed both Abbott and Turnbull?)

Polling misses also cost real money: just this past month, billionaire Mike Bloomberg threw $100 million into Florida off the back of positive Biden polls. Lucky he can afford it.

After each miss, polls are reshaped in an attempt to catch the falling knife of social change. After the 2016 US presidential election, pollsters started weighting by education to reflect the emerging bifurcation between educated and uneducated white voters, long after Trump had intuited it. (“We love the uneducated,” as he crowed early in the 2016 campaign.)

But polls are getting worse, not better, because society is becoming worse — more fragmented, less social. Pollsters are increasingly reliant on weighting of more and more shifting social groups divided by gender, race, class and age and less on the input from a diminishing number of people who actually talk to them — about 8% in the US this year.

Blame the internet: once, home landline phones were ubiquitous and inquisitive pollsters were rare. Now, it’s the other way around. Blame people: they know the game and come up with answers they think are “correct”, taking their cue on issues from what their political representatives say.

In the media, political journalists and forecasters have been adapting in a to-and-fro between reality and the polling house of mirrors. There’s the more-is-better approach of polling aggregators, like Real Clear Politics. These end up both played with rubbish polls (garbage in, garbage out) and encourage pollsters to herd around acceptable differences.

The wisdom of betting markets was thought to be a useful substitute. But without any insider knowledge, these have become just another derivative of polls. Their conservate bias also shows a wish-casting by people with more money than cool judgement.

The latest attempt to breathe life back into polls is probabilistic forecasting, most famously the FiveThirtyEight model of Nate Silver or The New York TimesUpShot. These forecasts mesh the tools of polling and betting (and investment) markets to determine how “likely” particular outcomes are.

They more properly grasp uncertainty. But it’s unlikely that they’re read that way. Silver is recognised for predicting Trump had a 30% chance in 2016. Bookmakers gave Queensland about the same chance of winning the State of Origin last night, and no one considers that a correct call..

In a more sober approach to public opinion, the worst outcome will be a journalistic reliance on feelings (aka, the pub test). Polls saved the media from that once before.

Rather, journalists have to give up trying to guess what’s going to happen in rare frequency events (like elections) and focus more on reporting the diverse and changing society that’s happening in front of us right now.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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