Nate Silver: 'I'm pretty worried' about the state of polling

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Polling guru Nate Silver says he has serious concerns about modern polling.

Speaking on a media panel hosted by Columbia University’s student newspaper, the founder of the site FiveThirtyEight said Sunday that he largely agreed with the premise of a lengthy recent New Yorker article that posits modern polling is in a state of crisis.

“I am pretty worried about polling, actually,” Silver said when asked about the piece, which was written by Harvard history professor Jill Lepore.

Silver noted that several high-profile off-base election forecasts in the US, the United Kingdom, and Israel over the past several years could be the result of problems with current survey methods. Some experts attribute those troubles to ineffective online polling methods and a declining and unrepresentative pool of landline telephone survey responders.

“We have had a number of cases in industrialized democracies where polls basically failed,” Silver said. “And also it’s quite challenging to conduct a poll now when most people are not picking up a random stranger’s telephone call answering a a survey. Online polls don’t use probability, which means there’s no way — unless you’re the NSA — of randomly picking someone online.”

Though the New Yorker piece encouraged broad head-nodding within the polling community, not everyone agrees the state of polling has entered into dire straits.

University of Michigan polling expert Michael Traugott argued to Business Insider last week that pollsters are improving their methods and increasingly relying on statistical modelling.

Lepore “operates from a common assumption that survey research is a static, out of date field,” Traugott said. “Quite the opposite is true; like any scientific endeavour, its methods are under constant review and revision.”

“The accuracy of pre-election polling has actually improved, not worsened,” he added.

The debate about the value of polls comes as many political analysts are increasingly concerned that early polls are playing a far too important role not only in driving media coverage, but also in dictating the terms of actual political contests.

Several Republican presidential candidates have complained about the use of early-primary polls to determine which candidates have been included on debate stages.

The process has relegated candidates like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) to early, non-prime-time debates. And their poll standing has recently pushed former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (R), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), and former New York Gov. George Pataki (R) from the stage altogether.

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