The results of last night’s Iowa caucuses were yet another stake in the heart of the polling business. After epic disasters in the 2014 Senate races, the 2015 leadership races in Britain and Israel, the industry covered itself in shame yet again. The final average of the polls collected by Real Clear Politics said Ted Cruz would do far worse than he did—4 points worse—and Donald Trump would do better than he did by 4. Marco Rubio overperformed the polls by 6 full points. Most important, every one of the 13 final polls in Iowa had Trump winning, when of course Cruz prevailed by a comfortable margin. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders outdid his polls by 6 points, and Hillary Clinton outdid hers by 2.
We knew something bad was going to happen. That is to say, everybody who follows polling knew that there would be at least one big mistake last night. But nobody knew there would be five huge mistakes—that the measures of support for every leading contender in Iowa would be significantly off, and in two of the cases, off beyond any argument relating to “margin of error.”
And yet we didn’t know. We wouldn’t allow ourselves to know. In the weeks before the caucuses, the political world breathlessly awaited the findings of the Selzer Poll, conducted for the Des Moines Register. It was said to be the “gold standard” in the business, that it was so meticulous and used so many different combinations of techniques that its integrity and quality could not be doubted. Well, piffle. It missed Sanders’s total by 7.5 points, missed Cruz by 5, and missed Rubio by 8. The Selzer was flat.
The entire political world has been hypnotized by Donald Trump’s constant invocations of his leading position in the polls — and allowed him to set the agenda over the past few months. To be blunt, this was nothing short of malpractice. Experts are supposed to know more than non-experts; it’s what makes them experts. People who make their livings covering politics know, know, know that polls have been astoundingly inaccurate in recent years for all kinds of reasons they know, too. And yet, once again, it’s basically all anybody talked about.
Now the focus is on New Hampshire, which again has lots of polls, a few of which show Trump — and Sanders — with ludicrously large leads. They cannot be taken seriously. None of them. But it’s now in the consumer’s hands. Polling firms blew it and the experts who write about politics using polling as their solid ground blew it also. Now watch as it happens again. And again.