Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Here’s what’s great about: early election predictions

By: Emma Shinn

It’s a natural human thing to do: we watch the world unfold around us, and just can’t help but make predictions about what we think is going to happen next. The world of politics is no different. In fact, it may be even worse about constantly trying to predict the future. Media outlets tend to try to act as fortune tellers, staring into their crystal balls (in this case full of polls, historical trends, and the expert opinions of both highly-educated political scientists and the random people they interview on the street) and telling us just who is going to win the next election.

Unfortunately for those media outlets and the people who listen to them, those predictions are often completely wrong. The fact of the matter is this: it is completely impossible to predict the winner of any election with 100% certainty, no matter what tactics you used to gain your supposed knowledge. One of the biggest and most obvious reasons for this is simple polling errors.

All polls and surveys are conducted with a certain margin of error, which means that they are all automatically and inherently flawed. There are often instances of bias, wherein surveys are given only to certain groups or demographics (such as the viewers of a certain news channel, the voters of a certain political party, etc). Even more common are instances of what could possibly be termed “user error,” when people being polled lie to the surveyors because they don’t want to admit that they a) don’t know, b) don’t care, or c) have an unpopular opinion.

Until now, this article has been focusing on early polls and predictions as an abstract and general failure. Let’s now turn our attention to some recent specific examples of this problem in American politics. In 2007, most early polls had former First Lady and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton easily besting Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination, and possibly becoming our first female president. Fast forward a year and you’ve got the election of our first black president instead, and Hillary Clinton left in the dust.

In 1991, the aforementioned woman’s husband, Bill Clinton, was far behind in the early polls. He was losing badly to everyone’s favorite mildly-crazy Reverend Jesse Jackson, and the now virtually unremembered Mario Cuomo. Very few people had Clinton pegged to win that race, and yet today, he is looked back on by most people as an extremely effective leader.

And perhaps the most telling example of all came earlier this year, when a certain business mogul with ridiculous hair and a reality tv show announced his intention to run for President in 2012. Believe it or not, Donald Trump led the polls for awhile, which in turn caused everyone in the media to speculate and give analysis on what it might be like if the American people chose him to run our government. I don’t know about anyone else, but I find that absolutely terrifying.

So, to tie us back in to the title of my column; what’s great about early election predictions? The fact that they’re so completely useless, of course! It’s simply great that we all sit around, making predictions based on next to no facts and the results of flawed surveys. It’s great that we bet on who we think is going to win the election, and get to brag and boast when we were right, but don’t have to deal with the consequences when we’re wrong. It’s great that the media gets to do the exact same thing, but on a larger scale, with corporate funding, and in front of tons of viewers who use what those news stations are saying to help form their own opinions.

Oh, and in case you haven’t picked up on it by now, when I say “great” on this topic, I really mean “awful.”

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