Everything You Wanted to Know About Polling But Were Afraid to Ask

“Nobody wants to play Russian roulette.”

Early voters in Georgia.Jessica McGowan/Getty

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In this week’s episode of The Mother Jones Podcast, host Jamilah King talks with some of today’s best interpreters of polling about the shortcomings of the dark art and what it can actually tell us about what’s going to happen in the upcoming midterm elections.

While most election forecasters predict Democrats will win the House while Republicans hold the Senate, after President Trump’s surprise win in 2016, many journalists, citizens and even organizations involved in polling wonder how much we can trust polls, and how much assurance they can provide nervous voters about the outcome.

“We show Republicans with a one in six chance of winning the House,” Micah Cohen, manager editor of FiveThirtyEight explains. “If you’re playing Russian Roulette that’s the chances that you get killed. Right? And nobody wants to play Russian roulette.”

Polls are just snapshots, not predictions, explains HuffPost polling editor Ariel Edwards-Levy: “We have a lot of snapshots, and you can look at what all of those things say and… sort of try to add them up. You still don’t have the actual picture.”

“Polling error is a thing,” warns Edwards-Levy, “and it doesn’t take that much of a polling error in either direction to go over to either Republicans have a much better night than expected and manage to hold on to the House and maybe pick up a Senate seat or two or…Democrats have a much bigger win than expected.”

Get to the bottom of the numbers by listening to this week’s episode of The Mother Jones Podcast. Subscribe wherever you listen to your podcasts:

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

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