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It’s Time to Abandon the Laziest Cliché in Election Polling

Vote Counts (Credits: The DePaulia)

The term “snapshot in time” is frequently used to describe the fleeting accuracy of polls, especially as the 2024 presidential election reveals.

This aphorism underscores the impermanence of poll results weeks or months before an election and suggests their limited predictive power. As the election campaign progresses, this phrase is repeatedly invoked, highlighting its commonplace usage in political discourse.

Commentators and politicians often employ “snapshot in time” to dismiss poll results that do not align with their partisan views. It is a convenient tactic to undermine data that contradicts their expectations or narratives.

Voter (Credits: Wikipedia)

More importantly, pollsters use this phrase as a shield when pre-election surveys fail to predict outcomes accurately. This defense mechanism was especially prevalent after many polls in the 2020 presidential election missed the mark by a wide margin.

In 2020, major polls from CNN, Quinnipiac University, Economist/YouGov, and NBC/Wall Street Journal predicted a substantial lead for Joe Biden over then-President Donald Trump, forecasting a 10—to 12-point advantage. However, the actual election results showed Biden winning the popular vote by only 4.5 points.

David A. Graham, in His Piece for The Atlantic, Characterized the Result as a “Train Wreck”

The substantial discrepancy between the poll predictions and the election outcome was the largest in 40 years, leading to severe criticism of the polling industry. David A. Graham, writing for The Atlantic, described the outcome as a “train wreck” and “a disaster for the polling industry,” questioning the purpose of such inaccurate polls.

Despite these criticisms, polls’ prevalence in the 2024 election cycle demonstrates their enduring role in political reporting and analysis. The aggregation of numerous polling “snapshots” can provide a broader panorama that offers valuable insights into the dynamics of the presidential race.

Current polling indicates that the 2024 race could be closely contested, with no clear indication of a landslide victory and key battleground states’ leanings toward Trump.

The late Philip Meyer, a prominent figure in journalism education and former president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, emphasized that while polls represent a momentary picture, they are not irrelevant.

In his commentary and seminal book “Precision Journalism,” Meyer argued that the attitudes captured in polls are general indicators of future behavior, especially as an election approaches and there is little time for outstanding changes in public opinion.

Voters (Credits: The Statesman)

However, polls’ predictive value is not always reliable, as demonstrated by various election outcomes, including the 2020 presidential election and a more recent Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.

Bernie Moreno’s unexpected victory, despite polling predictions of a close race, led Chris Quinn, editor of the Plain Dealer, to question the utility of polls, given their unreliability.

Given these concerns, it might be time to reconsider the use of “snapshot in time” in discussing polls. While pollsters have used this phrase defensively, its overuse has led to skepticism and irritation, even earning it a spot among Politico’s worst political clichés.

As polling continues to shape electoral narratives, the challenge lies in enhancing their accuracy and reliability, ensuring they serve their intended purpose in a democratic society.

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