Harrop: Must we gorge on the 2024 horse race? Absolutely not
The presidential horse race is off and running on TV news and on social media. History tells us that the poll numbers at this point reveal close to nothing about the future. The political pundits portray their analyses as thunderbolts carried down from Mount Olympus. But frankly, anyone could do their job.
Polls might be of interest close to the election, but we’re not close or anywhere near. The election is almost 14 months away, and if you recall, polls 14 days before the 2016 election showed Hillary Clinton winning.
The polls serve two purposes to the news outlets. One is to keep their partisan viewers tuned in. There’s a big business in stoking the public’s anxieties. Thus, as one who shudders at the prospect of another Donald Trump presidency, I’ve been feeling badly used by media usually deemed friendly to my views.
You know who you are. You’re the ones going on and on about recent polls suggesting a very close race between Trump and Joe Biden.
The other reason for TV’s addiction to political polls is that posting a bunch of numbers and having some blustering guy explain their significance with unearned confidence is cheap. (The closer you get to the election, the easier it is to find empty bar stools.)
Political opinionators cost a lot less than sending a team to cover the war in Ukraine. That conflict is not only gripping news; its outcome may determine the future of Western civilization. The views of Republican caucus-goers in Iowa less so.
The meaninglessness of current polls can be guessed by the wrongness of their analyzers last time around.
On Feb. 19, 2020, a writer for New York Magazine, noting that Bernie Sanders had won both Iowa and New Hampshire, was even more impressed by “Joe Biden’s catastrophic showings.” Biden, he declared, was “weakened (perhaps fatally).”
An ABC News/Washington Post poll had Sanders “16 points ahead of his closest competitor.” And Sanders’ “closest competitor” wasn’t even the guy who eventually won the nomination and is now president. It was Michael Bloomberg.
An Axios headline at the time: “Poll: Joe Biden loses status as most electable Democrat.” As the piece grimly announced, “The share of Democratic primary voters who believe Joe Biden has the best chance out of any 2020 candidate to beat President Trump has dropped to 17%, down 12 points since the New Hampshire primary.”
FiveThirtyEight, a site that interprets political data, declared, “There’s simply not much ambiguity right now that Sanders is the first choice of a plurality of Democrats nationwide.”
On Feb. 25, Reuters reported that “Sanders surpasses Biden among African American voters,” according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.
Again, we’re still 14 months away from the election. The above declarations were made nine months before.
And that was a mere week before the Super Tuesday primaries, when Biden blew away the opposition. He won 10 out of 14 primaries — including Massachusetts, Minnesota and Texas, states that the punditry assured us were in the bag for Bernie.
The very African American voters who, a few days before, were allegedly preferring Sanders gave Biden a huge victory. Had it occurred to the oracles that Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire tend to be more left-leaning than those in the South or even Massachusetts? Perhaps not.
A CNN analysis described Biden’s win as an “unbelievable political comeback.” It was unbelievable only if you worshipped early polls and believed in the punditry’s psychic powers to divine their meaning.
Oh, we can take seriously the jabber about political “wild cards,” approval ratings and where the “proverbial” headwinds are blowing. On the other hand, we don’t have to.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at email@example.com.