Polls Aren’t Perfect, But They’re More Accurate Than Lawn Signs and Crowd Size

Some wishful thinkers looked at Mitt Romney’s crowds late in 2012 and saw victory. Photo: Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

Perhaps it’s a product of resistance to cold, passionless science, or professional self-promotion, or an over-reaction to surprises like the 2016 presidential election. But political journalists — and many of their readers and viewers — seem determined to find measurements of what’s happening in an election that are mostly subjective and definitely distant from public opinion polling. There was an orgy of support for more “instinctive” approaches after polls allegedly (though not really) got the Trump/Clinton contest so tragically wrong. Writers like Salena Zito scorned those who didn’t go out into the country and determine the mood of voters one-by-one (an approach that would take a few thousand years to approach anything like a representative sample of opinions; it’s more likely to tell the reporter what she wanted to hear). And somehow polls were thought to reflect some sort of coastal elitist disdain for the hardy folk virtues of Heartland voters, which is kind of like saying a fancy car would refuse to drive down a two-lane road in Iowa.

Another thing feeding the thirst for subjective yardsticks is probably the natural obsession journalists have about voter “enthusiasm,” which in a very close, turnout-driven election can indeed matter at the crucial margins (though probably less so in presidential elections for which many voters who are marginal participants in midterms are going to show up whether they are enthusiastic or not).

In any event, as Nathanial Rakich of FiveThirtyEight notes, one of the things you read about an awful lot is the size of crowds this or that candidate draws. And you know what? It’s often misleading:

While the ability to generate big crowds is certainly nice — it may signal enthusiasm among highly engaged voters or produce favorable media coverage — you should ignore any candidate, surrogate or media outlet that tells you that large crowd sizes mean that the polls are underestimating a candidate’s support. It’s just spin; polls are much more accurate at forecasting elections than crowd-size estimates, which don’t tell us all that much….

Despite a lot of hay being made about crowd sizes during the 2016 campaign, that cycle also was an argument against crowd sizes being predictive. Although now-President Trump did often draw large crowds at his primary rallies, Hillary Clinton reportedly beat him out for largest crowd of the 2016 campaign, 40,000 to 30,000. And at roughly this point in the Democratic primary in 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders was outdrawing Clinton!

When you think about it for a moment, there’s no particular reason some political reporter’s (much less a campaign’s) guesstimates about crowd size ought to be given much weight in understanding the dynamics of an electoral contest:

One of the many problems with crowd-size estimates is that they can be extremely rough, and they’re subject to reporting bias. (If Warren says she drew 10,000 people to a college campus, but the university says the crowd was only 5,000, whom would you believe?) There are also a ton of factors other than enthusiasm for the candidate that can affect crowd sizes: Where is the event being held? (Is it in New York City, or in a small town in Iowa?) How frequently does the candidate hold events? (If candidates are frequent visitors to an area, there is perhaps less urgency for voters to attend any one rally.) Are there other draws besides the candidate? (For example, that Clinton rally that drew 40,000 also featured performances by Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi.)

If you’re not careful, though, you can trick yourself in believing crowd sizes or other anecodotal evidence of a candidate’s strength matter most. A particularly hilarious example was provided by Peggy Noonan in 2012, when she toted up attendance numbers at last-minute Romney events Ohio and Pennsylvania and just knew the polls were wrong. I’m afraid I mocked her unmercifully at the time:

Peggy gets deep into Wisdom, a close friend of hers:

Among the wisest words spoken this cycle were by John Dickerson of CBS News and Slate, who said, in a conversation the night before the last presidential debate, that he thought maybe the American people were quietly cooking something up, something we don’t know about.
I think they are and I think it’s this: a Romney win.

Why? “All the vibrations are right.” “Something old is roaring back.” People at rope lines linger at the touch of surrogates who have in turn touched the hem of Mitt’s garment! Crowds are big! At this point, I’m thinking “I bet she mentions yard signs.” And there it is:

And there’s the thing about the yard signs. In Florida a few weeks ago I saw Romney signs, not Obama ones. From Ohio I hear the same. From tony Northwest Washington, D.C., I hear the same.

Noonan did not have the last laugh.

Sure, writing about large and enthusiastic crowds (or for that matter, some big advantage in yard signs) adds color and context to political journalism, much like aesthetic judgments of campaign ads or interviews with local partisans. But preferring such information to polls or demographic analysis or electoral history is a good way to fool oneself, and those who want to believe the encouraging words they read or hear.

You Can’t Predict Elections With Lawn Signs and Crowd Size