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The Retired Investor: Beware Political Pollsters

By Bill SchmickiBerkshires columnist
The pollsters were wrong in 2016, 2020, and now 2022. The recent "Red Wave" of GOP wins, so confidently predicted in the final days of the mid-term elections, failed to be no more than a red ripple. Is this a question of "three times you're out?"
Heading into November 2022, Republicans were shown to have a clear edge in battleground states, as well as throughout the nation generally, according to the average of most polls. A minority of polls, mostly those of traditional pollsters, seem to dispute those results but were drowned out by the red wave forecasters.
Some argue that the traditional pollsters got it right, especially in the final weeks of the mid-term elections. Those surveys indicated that the Democrats were running neck and neck with Republicans, even in those races where opinion seemed to favor Republicans hands down. What happened to skewing the averages the other way?
One misconception is that polls are meant to predict the future. The value of polls is to explain the how and why of voters and their feelings, attitudes, and behaviors. It is a snapshot of time and not a prediction of future outcomes. Anyone can conduct a poll, you see, regardless of experience, political agenda, and in some cases, even honesty.
But beyond the right questions to ask, interpreting those answers, and extrapolating that data to form generalities with a high level of confidence is just as important. Strong poll results for a candidate or political party, or even a company, can bring several advantages. Companies, for example, that consumers consider a number one brand or a great place to work, or to have a social conscience can increase sales, profits, morale, and even the caliber of new hires. The fact that traditional polling organizations do not claim to predict the future is largely ignored.
In the political arena, strong poll numbers can mean more contributions in campaign financing, a boost to morale for volunteers, a shot in the arm for the political party overall, and in the final days and weeks of an election greater turnout at the polls. The Republican Party figured this out early on.
During Donald Trump's upset election in 2016, few pollsters got it right. Four years later, it happened again, only this time the opposite occurred, and Democrats took control. By November of last year, the polling industry was a free-for-all with partisan-aligned pollsters springing up virtually overnight to try their hand at polling.
After all, if the traditional pollsters couldn't get it right, maybe new blood with a new outlook might do better. Polling organizations, many backed by political PACs, with a great deal of enthusiasm, but little experience jumped into the fray. Even some high school students tried their hand at polling and found their results were taken as seriously as any others.
As I mentioned, traditional nonpartisan pollsters did a pretty good job of reflecting reality during the run-up to the November 2022 elections, but at the same time, they conducted far fewer polls than in the past. This left open a vacuum that fledgling newcomers in the polling business were happy to fill. And that is where the "average" poll comes in.
In this day of internet streaming, social media, and partisan news shows, political polling results can be a big business. The news media, always in pursuit of higher clicks and ratings, were eager to promote and broadcast these new poll results (even high school results), especially in key battleground states. Few questioned the ability of these pollsters to conduct surveys, or their skill and experience in what questions to ask, what groups to target, and how to analyze the outcomes of their results. Those that should but didn't pay attention to this deliberate flooding of polls were the aggregators. These are organizations that average several polls conducted by different organizations and come up with a leading candidate overall.
As more and more polls were generated, many by partisan groups showed Republicans widening their leads, the "average" poll results leaned more and more into the red column.  
This had profound effects on campaign strategies for both parties. Despite internal polls conducted by veteran polling organizations that continued to call the election a toss-up, both parties began to doubt those findings in the face of the average poll results. They too began to operate as if a red wave was coming.
Some candidates that were in little danger of losing their seats found that political action committees and other organizations funneled more money than necessary into campaigns where candidates were leading. In comparison, these candidates who were fighting for their political lives, but were assumed to win in a red wave, were ignored.
The bottom line is that a "three times you're out" attitude toward political polling results may be a bit extreme. However, if partisan polls, no matter what the subject matter, continues to gain traction and the media accept those results carte blanche, the value of polls overall will surely continue to diminish.

Bill Schmick is the founding partner of Onota Partners, Inc., in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Onota Partners Inc. (OPI). None of his commentary is or should be considered investment advice. Direct your inquiries to Bill at 1-413-347-2401 or email him at bill@schmicksretiredinvestor.com.

Anyone seeking individualized investment advice should contact a qualified investment adviser. None of the information presented in this article is intended to be and should not be construed as an endorsement of OPI, Inc. or a solicitation to become a client of OPI. The reader should not assume that any strategies or specific investments discussed are employed, bought, sold, or held by OPI. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct. Investments in securities are not insured, protected, or guaranteed and may result in loss of income and/or principal. This communication may include opinions and forward-looking statements, and we can give no assurance that such beliefs and expectations will prove to be correct.

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