My 84-year-old mother was born and raised in a time when phone calls were something of an occasion. In the days before answering machines, much less cellphone caller ID, she and her peers answered their landlines without fail. She can, in fact, be counted upon to answer her phone even when it rings, on her wrist, when she’s in an elevator or out to dinner.

Unfortunately, she and what remains of her cohort are some of the few Americans still equipped and willing to enable the demands of modern polling. Which is why, for the next few moments, please join me to imagine a world without political polling. We don’t need it. We can especially do without what the process is doing to our political culture.

Until 1960, there was little to no reliable surveying of the electorate, at all — even when the entire voting public answered the phone. Somehow, we got along just fine without it. We managed to elect people, and those candidates managed to identify what they themselves believed. Those folks then married those beliefs and policy stances to public positions they considered electorally and politically advantageous — entirely on their own.

Did candidates pander to certain constituencies? Of course they did. But never once did a candidate consult “the data” and, in response, adjust his/her position. In fact, candidates of the Old School worked to sell the electorate on their views, not the other way around.

By the same token, voters never concerned themselves with what some random 900-person sampling had deduced about this issue or that. They made up their own minds, more or less on their own.

Contrast that bygone state of the electoral affairs with what we experience today, when new polls are trotted out every two to three days — months and months, if not years ahead elections. Bill Clinton is credited or blamed for inaugurating the practice of governing by poll. This approach perverted and distorted the political process in 1996, and the situation has grown 10 times more grotesque today.


We should junk it. The whole phenomenon. No more political polling. Companies can go ahead and bother Americans about Coke vs. Pepsi, but political outcomes and voting itself? Too important. What other people think about this or that should not matter to you. In this country, voters make our own individual choices, and polling does nothing to better inform a voter on the issues or the candidates.

Yet polling is more sinister than a mere intrusion on the voting process: Revealing what other voters think ahead of election day only encourages campaigns to pander. Insofar as citizens read polls and consider some races to be decided already, it also depresses turnout. There’s a reason one of our major political parties is so hell-bent on keeping people from voting: In a democracy, so long as we have one, the casting of ballots has proved extraordinary powerful. We should not allow so much snake oil to contort that vital, sacrosanct process.

Polling is ubiquitous for another reason: It has become just another form of content created by, then harped upon ad nauseum by, The Electoral Industrial Complex. Witness all the national news organizations, print and digital, partnering with various universities to produce polling data to suit whatever a candidate or party might require. Who pays these entities to conduct the polling? Candidates and political parties. They “commission” them. Yet, oftentimes, news outlets commission themselves — to create provocative content.

Sadly, polling on this model and scale need not wait around for October or November. Polling and its attendant profits can be realized all year long, even years before a particular election date. This is one reason voters have grown so weary of the political process. Polling/election season never ends. And because no one answers the phone, online organizations like YouGov and Promark solicit opinions on an opt-in basis, which utterly changes the survey process. Or private organizations, including campaigns and parties, poll their own memberships — too feed media and further influence the electorate. Polling season today never ends.

I wish I could say such polling data was “meaningless,” but this information does influence voter activity regarding issues and stances taken by politicians and parties today. Though not in a good way.

In years past, there were phone books that enabled the blanket, unbiased surveying of households, via landlines. Inside those homes lived people like my mom and her peers, who still answer their cellphones, the medium through which the vast majority polling is necessarily conducted these days. Cellphones, then the internet, utterly transformed and ultimately degraded the entire exercise.


How often do you answer a call from a phone number not identified as being in your contacts list? Yeah, me neither.

Which begs the question: Who are these people answering the phone in order to engage pollsters? Aside from old folks with landlines, who is actually responding to these calls? I’m not going to argue how a markedly geriatric polling population might skew results. I’m just saying this dynamic hurts polling accuracy.

Social media has also changed how American voters participate in the polling exercise: Increasingly, those who accede to polling outreach view the process like they view Facebook posts, as opportunities to sound off — about the candidates, about the poverty of options, about the system itself. It’s widely accepted that right-wing voters enjoy lying to pollsters, as a way to punk what they perceive to be an establishment system. Charming.

In some countries, like Australia, voting is mandatory. That’s not the case here in America. No U.S. citizens are required to vote or participate in a polling exercise. But all this speaks to the plummeting accuracy and outsized political influence and damage posed by polling data produced in the 2020s.

To make matters worse, the polling exercise today routinely asks American voters to judge/opine on issues and/or candidates six, eight, 10 months ahead of elections.

In June of 2024, someone polled on her/his choice among presidential candidates might feel strongly that one is preferable, or that neither is worth a damn, or that one or both is too old, or that a felony conviction is essentially a disqualification. Or not. Fact is, they are likely to feel quite differently in early November, when they step into the voting booth. Bitching and moaning to a pollster in June is very different from the solemn and sober act of casting a vote, a secret one, for real, in November. What’s more, God only knows what will happen between then and now…


So what good are the polling results we’re getting now, every damned week?

Human beings just aren’t that good at projecting how they will feel six or eight months hence. Think of it this way: How do you like the Red Sox this year? Don’t answer right away: I’m specifically interested to know how you’re going to feel, in late September.

Are you satisfied with that car you’re leasing? Please project for me how you anticipate feeling about that vehicle in 2026.

Not surprisingly, polls taken in October are far more accurate than those taken even 10 weeks ahead of elections. Which doesn’t mean we need polling even two weeks before an election. Or ever.

Hal Phillips of Auburn has been a working journalist since 1986, and managing director of Mandarin Media, Inc. since 1997. His first book, Generation Zero: Founding Fathers, Hidden Histories & The Making of Soccer in America, was published in 2022. Rowman & Littlefield will publish his next effort in 2026. He can be reached at

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