WASHINGTON – Flip on the TV news: Polls. Open a newspaper: Polls. Surf the Internet: Polls, polls, more polls.
America’s obsession with political surveys has reached record heights in this presidential campaign season, with polls of early states, polls of the nation, and even a “poll of polls” that determines who gets a slot on the GOP debate stages.
The number of polls of Republican voters in the first three primary and caucus states — Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — has skyrocketed nearly 90 percent compared with the 2012 GOP primary, according to a Globe review of polls tracked by the news website Real Clear Politics.
The trend toward saturation polling shows little sign of abating, with online polls now cheaper than ever and polling firms and universities competing to satisfy an insatiable media appetite for the latest upticks and downturns, the trends in the minute-by-minute drama of the contest.
“People like the competition, the horse race nature of it. Issues are certainly second, down on the list when compared with the politics,” said John McLaughlin, a longtime Republican pollster unaffiliated with any presidential campaign.
At times the race can have the feel of watching a football game in which the announcers read off the score every few seconds, with a lot more emphasis on the score rather than the game itself.
“The 2012 Republican race was boring, quite frankly. And in many ways [Mitt] Romney was kind of always the prohibitive favorite,” said John McIntyre, the president and cofounder of Real Clear Politics. “I think the entrance of [Donald] Trump and all the focus that’s put on it – certainly on the Republican side, there’s just more interest in the race.”
Trump, the Republican front-runner, devotes significant time to talking about his poll numbers, rarely letting a speech, an interview, or a debate go by without mentioning his latest standing.
“I’m leading every single poll,” he said on ABC’s “Live with Kelly and Michael.” “So obviously, I’m very happy where I am.”
“I’m at 42 and you’re at 3. So I’m doing better,” Trump said to Jeb Bush during a recent debate.
“I just got a poll. I’m at 41!” he said at the start of a rally the next day in Mesa, Ariz.
Bush has at times been exasperated by all the attention placed on polls — and his low spot in them — but he’s also urged his supporters to have patience.
“The people that were winning in December weren’t the ones that ended up winning,” Bush told Iowa Public Television earlier this month, referring to previous elections. “People make up their minds late.”
The number of surveys of national voters has stayed the same as 2012, making the spike in the quantity of polls in early states all the more striking. The three-state total jumped 88 percent, to 136 in 2015, from 72 in 2011.
Some of the polls seemed designed purely to generate attention in the news media rather than provide any meaningful data. Ipsos, a nonpartisan polling and marketing research firm, released a survey last week showing that among millennials nationwide, Darth Vader would beat Trump in a head-to-head matchup (Yoda would win more soundly, while another Star Wars character, Chewbacca, would be in a statistical dead heat).
On Friday, the firm Public Policy Polling released a survey saying that 30 percent of Republican voters nationwide would support bombing “Agrabah,’’ a fictional kingdom featured in the Disney movie “Aladdin.’’
The obsession over polls comes at a time when they may be less accurate, with some notable errors over the past several election cycles. In 2012, Romney’s campaign was confidant in the general election against President Obama based on its own internal polling, but it underestimated turnout for traditionally Democratic constituencies.
Most of the preelection polling in the Kentucky governor’s race last month showed Democrat Jack Conway with a slight lead; Republican Matt Bevin won by 9 points.
One major challenge for pollsters is ensuring they capture the sentiments of voters, particularly younger and poorer ones, who no longer have hard-wired telephone lines and only use cellphones.
Some polling companies are reaching people online, deploying a variety of different methodologies that may or may not be scientifically sound.
Some online-driven polls are open to all users who click on a website, which are generally viewed to be inaccurate (largely because the sample is not randomized).
Others use a panel of respondents who either agree to be part of a regular survey or are reached via e-mail in a similar way to cold calls to a home phone number.
“You’ll have days where there’s 10, 20, 30 polls that come out. It’s like a second job to just keep track of all the polls,” said Kyle Dropp, executive director of polling and data science at Morning Consult, a Washington-based firm that began doing extensive polling during the 2014 congressional elections.
Longtime pollsters remember a few decades ago when there were only a handful of polling firms because of all the legwork it took to make phone calls and analyze data using clunky computers.
“Now, just about anybody with a laptop and a robo-dialer can announce they’re a pollster,” McLaughlin said.
The abundance of polls requires media consumers to be more sophisticated in their own approach, say specialists. High unfavorable ratings make it harder for a candidate to shift public opinion his way. Or if a candidate is the second choice for many voters, they could benefit when a large field begins to winnow.
“There’s no doubt that with the rise of polls you also want a rise in analysis,” Dropp said. “You want increased number of people diving into the ‘cross tabs’ ’’ — that’s political jargon for how demographic subgroups of voters respond to questions — “rather than simply telling me who’s up and by how much.”Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.