The Huge Problem with Polls: My Letter to Frank Newport
Dear Frank Newport —
I believe I have found a significant blind spot in the exclusion criteria used by the CPD. When some suggested alternative criteria for inclusion in presidential debates, like if a majority wanted another candidate to be in the debates, the heads of the CPD rejected the effort. Then-CPD Director and former Republican Senator Alan Simpson said: “The issue is who do you want to be president. It’s not who do you want to do a dress rehearsal and see who can be the cutest at the debate.” Similarly, Paul Kirk, the then-co-chair of the CPD (now co-chairman emeritus) and former head of the Democratic National Committee, said: “It’s a matter of entertainment vs. the serious question of who would you prefer to be president of the United States.” (Citation in google books, “No Debate” by George Farah.)
But none of the polls the CPD is relying on for its exclusion criteria actually ask the “serious question of who you would prefer to be president of the United State” — nor do they ask “who do you want to be president.”
They all ask some minor variation of “if the election were held today which of the following would you vote for”. I hope that it’s apparent to you that for many people who they “want” to be president among the choices given (Clinton, Trump, Johnson and Stein) is different than who they would vote for. Voting is a tactical choice based largely (especially in this election) on wanting to ensure the candidate you least like does not become president. Thus, millions intend to vote for Trump because they don’t want Clinton and millions more will vote the opposite. But many of those people prefer or actually want Johnson or Stein. Those who “want” or “prefer” Johnson or Stein could even constitute a plurality and we’d never know it because the question that would gauge that is never asked.
As the pollster adviser to the CPD, it’s my view that it’s incumbent upon you to ensure that the polls the CPD relies upon actually gauge the “serious” question the CPD officials publicly claim the CPD is concerned with: Who do you prefer/want to be president.