Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Of Polls and Cicadas ...

Public opinion scholar Dick Yarbrough wrote a column recently in which he talks with an imaginary friend, Junior E. Lee. It's possible Yarbrough often talks to imaginary friends, but that's a different issue. Let's set aside the tired old crutch of conversing in a column with a make-believe foil and instead turn to his deep knowledge of public opinion and polling:
Junior said polling firms do that kind of thing so candidates will commission more polls and pollsters can make more money before they disappear until the next election cycle. He says pollsters are like cicadas who are here for a short time and then gone; particularly those pollsters who have no other skill sets to fall back on — like the pest control profession. While cicadas stay underground for 17 years, pollsters show up every election cycle. Junior says that is why he prefers cicadas. You don’t see them as much and they aren’t as noisy.
Point #1: When candidates commission polls the results are almost never released to the public. Those are called "internals." You release them only when it suits you, such as your candidate being far behind but your "in-house" pollster cooks the numbers in such a way as to make you see more viable than perhaps you really are.

Point #2: Yes, cicadas stay under ground, some for 17 years, some for 13 years. In Georgia it's Brood VI and it's a 17-year sleep. We wont' see 'em again until 2017, a year after the next presidential election. It really would have worked nicely had they returned in 2016.  Damn nature.

Point #3: You don't have to look at the polls if you find them noisy. I tend not to look at stupid newspaper columns, except when they include cutting-edge polling analysis.

Point #4: Agreed, not sure what other skills a pollster can fall back on, but a lot of them do other stuff. Take InsiderAdvantage, a Georgia company, as an example. While it's not a particularly high-rated polling outfit (stats guru Nate Silver gave it a "D" grade, it's still doing post-election analyses and advances on the next legislative session. 

Full Disclosure: Yarbrough has given generously to my college and UGA.

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