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What Causes Flawed Polling Results?

What Causes Flawed Polling Results?

J. Walker Smith

The fatal flaw of polls is the unasked question

Polls can’t be blamed for not answering a question that pollsters didn’t ask. The hue and cry over presidential election polls getting the outcome wrong has yet to consider whether the polls were focused on the right questions to begin with.

Researchers should have been polling about uncertainty. That was the driving force of this election. As the election cycle unfolded, it was widely thought that this was an election about change versus continuity. Only a few observers realized that this was an election about uncertainty versus certainty, which is to say, change that is completely unpredictable versus change that is highly calculated.

It’s no surprise that researchers didn’t bother to ask a lot of questions about uncertainty. Generally speaking, people run away from uncertainty, not toward it. It is hard to imagine that anything involving substantial uncertainty would be attractive to many voters. Yet, this was an election decided by the eager embrace of uncertainty by a key bloc of voters.


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J. Walker Smith is chief knowledge officer for brand and marketing at Kantar Consulting and co-author of four books, including Rocking the Ages. Follow him on Twitter at @jwalkersmith.​