Gallup chief clarifies horse race polling decision

Says position doesn't reflect doubts on accuracy

POLITICO REPORTED Wednesday morning that Gallup will not track the so-called “horse race” in this year’s presidential primary, and would not commit to doing so in the general election. The shift in focus was a shock to political and industry observers as the Gallup name is nearly synonymous with horse race polling. Indeed, Gallup has been tracking the horse race since the 1930s. The company has taken its lumps recently, particularly in 2012, when poor performance in the presidential election led the firm to commission a lengthy postmortem on the reasons for the difficulties. But after the postmortem was complete, Gallup gave every indication it would be ready to go again in 2016.

Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport told Politico that concerns about Gallup’s accuracy were not the motivation for the decision. Instead, he said, “We believe to put our time and money and brainpower into understanding the issues and priorities is where we can most have an impact.” Of course, it was hard not to read more into the shift, in an era when the challenges of accurate polling are the subject of frequent reporting by the media and navel-gazing by pollsters. It is true that shifts in the ways Americans communicate have made polling much more difficult, which has made pollsters’ lives more difficult as they strive to remain accurate when polling the horse race.

But, Newport insists, Gallup’s shift should not be taken that way. In a follow-up email (reprinted with his permission), Newport clarified the reasons for Gallup’s decision, writing “we at Gallup remain very strong in our belief in the accuracy of polling today, even with the new challenges that are in front of the industry.” The decision has more to do with the firm’s desire to focus on covering other aspects of the race rather than concerns about accuracy.

Here is the full text of his comments.

“Just a few more words than don’t make it into news stories.  Unlike some critics, we at Gallup remain very strong in our belief in the accuracy of polling today, even with the new challenges that are in front of the industry.  Our post-mortem work in 2012/2013 and our experimentation in the 2014 midterms leave us with little doubt that polling, including our own, can be accurate in 2016.  Our decision is one of allocation of resources. In the 2012 cycle we invested a huge amount of time, money, and interviewing in tracking the horse race on a nightly basis.

Our question in this cycle:  is this the best investment of resources to fulfill the mission of helping understand what is going on in a presidential election and hopefully helping make the nation better off as a result.  Our thinking is that it is not; that tilting those resources more toward understanding where the public stands on the issues of the day, how they are reacting to the proposals put forth by the candidates, what it is they want the candidates to do, and what messages or images of the candidates are seeping into the public’s consciousness can make a more lasting contribution.

This may not be the focus that gets the most ‘clicks’ or short-term headlines, but is one which hopefully can make a real difference.  Again, this isn’t based on a lack of faith in the process or the value of horse race polling in general, but rather a focus on how our particular firm’s contribution to the process can be most effective in keeping the voice of the people injected into the democratic process.”

Pew Research Center also told Politico it would be cutting back on horse race polling. “We’re not going to track the horse race in the same way we have in the past,” said Carroll Doherty, director of political research at Pew. “There’s a lot of people doing that, and they do a good job.”

Pew is another highly respected organization in the field of political polling whose absence will likewise be noted. But, like Gallup, the firm denies any connection with concerns about accuracy.

Meet the Author

Steve Koczela

President, MassINC Polling Group

About Steve Koczela

Steve Koczela is the President of The MassINC Polling Group, where he has grown the organization from its infancy to a nationally known and respected polling provider. During the 2014 election cycle, MPG conducted election polling for WBUR, the continuation of a three-year partnership. Koczela again led the endeavor, producing polls which came within one point of the margin in both the Massachusetts gubernatorial and U.S. Senate Elections. He was also lead writer for Poll Vault, WBUR’s political reporting section during the 2014 Election Cycle.

He has led survey research programs for the U.S. Department of State in Iraq, in key states for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and has conducted surveys and polls on behalf of many private corporations. Koczela brings a deep understanding of the foundations of public opinion and a wide ranging methodological expertise. He earned U.S. Department of State recognition for his leading edge work on sample evaluation in post conflict areas using geospatial systems.

Koczela is frequent guest on WBUR as well as many other news and talk programs in Massachusetts and elsewhere. His polling analysis is often cited in local, state, and national media outlets. He currently serves as President of the New England Chapter of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (NEAAPOR). Koczela holds a Master’s degree in Marketing Research from the University of Wisconsin and is a veteran of the war in Iraq.

About Steve Koczela

Steve Koczela is the President of The MassINC Polling Group, where he has grown the organization from its infancy to a nationally known and respected polling provider. During the 2014 election cycle, MPG conducted election polling for WBUR, the continuation of a three-year partnership. Koczela again led the endeavor, producing polls which came within one point of the margin in both the Massachusetts gubernatorial and U.S. Senate Elections. He was also lead writer for Poll Vault, WBUR’s political reporting section during the 2014 Election Cycle.

He has led survey research programs for the U.S. Department of State in Iraq, in key states for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and has conducted surveys and polls on behalf of many private corporations. Koczela brings a deep understanding of the foundations of public opinion and a wide ranging methodological expertise. He earned U.S. Department of State recognition for his leading edge work on sample evaluation in post conflict areas using geospatial systems.

Koczela is frequent guest on WBUR as well as many other news and talk programs in Massachusetts and elsewhere. His polling analysis is often cited in local, state, and national media outlets. He currently serves as President of the New England Chapter of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (NEAAPOR). Koczela holds a Master’s degree in Marketing Research from the University of Wisconsin and is a veteran of the war in Iraq.

So although this election cycle will see a bit less Galluping in the horserace and fewer voters in the Pews, it’s not a lack of faith in the process. It’s a desire to focus attention elsewhere.

Steve Koczela is president of the MassINC Polling Group, a subsidiary of MassINC, which publishes CommonWealth magazine.