Lies, Public Opinion Surveys and Deep-Fried Butter: Why you should ignore the polls and attend the Iowa State Fair


Throughout the primary season, the polls were consistently off, sometimes significantly, in capturing the outcome of the primaries and caucuses.  This is important because the polls don’t just capture reality, in theory anyway, they help shape it.

People want to be on the winning team and being ahead in the polls generally helps build momentum. So if a poll shows Candidate A cruising to victory, more voters will decide to vote for Voter A simply to be with the winner.

That effect may be less important this year and especially this fall when for most of us the idea of being on the side of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton doesn’t inspire a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, it makes you physically ill, especially if you’ve recently eaten a deep-fried stick of butter.

Anyway, all of which brings me to the Iowa caucuses*, which were held last February 1. The vote in Iowa  is the first of the campaign and the outcome is seen as critical in determining who will be each party’s respective nominees. 

The last minute polls in Iowa this year mostly showed that Hillary Clinton would win by a small but comfortable margin and Donald Trump would triumph over Ted Cruz. At 538, Nate Silver, now the grand old man of American polling, showed Clinton had a 67 percent chance of winning the caucus and Trump had a 46 percent chance, well better than Cruz.

In the end, Cruz beat Trump and Hillary and Bernie were neck and neck with Hillary probably only being able to claim victory due to vote-rigging by the DNC.

Iowa was just the start of a woeful performance by national pollsters during the campaign.There have been all sorts of theories about what went wrong and and all sorts of defenses from pollsters explaining why the public should still trust them.

An Iowa resident wrote me with a story that reveals another possible reason that pollsters in the state may have been off:  She and her husband were so uniformly disgusted by the candidates that their only solace was bullshitting the pollsters. She said:

As the caucuses neared we, in Wapello County were receiving a minimum of five calls a night. It got to the point where if we heard, “If the election were held today….” one more time we could have slit our wrists. Instead, we lied. One night we were Republicans, the next we were Democrats, the next we were independents. Our income ranged from undisclosed to in excess of $100,000. We were 18-24 one night and 45-54 the next.

The most fun was who we were supporting. Our selections depended on our mood. One night I was a rabid Marco Rubio supporter; the next I was supporting a more moderate Jeb Bush. My husband claimed to lean more to Hillary, even though he can’t stand her.

All of this made me wonder about the polls today. How many people, like us, lie because we are just sick and tired of it all? Is this more prevalent this year? Or, are people more afraid to share their feelings this year because they don’t want people to hear them say, “Yes, I’m supporting Donald Trump.”

Are these two Iowa residents the only ones who lied to the pollsters? That seems highly doubtful — and polling samples in the state ranged from just 298 to 919 voters so it wouldn’t take a lot of bogus respondents to totally skew the results. Sadly, it’s not possible to ignore this godawful election but his is one more reason, on top of so many more, to at least ignore the polls.

*There is in fact no connection between deep-fried sticks of butter and the Iowa caucuses, other than an associative one in my mind, as a Google search revealed. Deep-fried butter is served at the Iowa State Fair, which is an annual event and will be held next year between August 10 and 20. 

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