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American Association for Public Opinion Research

Moving Forward

by Roger Tourangeau, President
Public opinion polling and survey research receive a lot of scrutiny during presidential election years, and this year was no exception.  In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, it looked as though the polls had done pretty badly this year.  However as the popular vote continues to roll in, the national polls are looking better and better.  We are all looking forward to the work of the AdÔÇÉHoc Committee on 2016 Election Polling for a final assessment of how the polls did this time.  In the meantime, we should take this opportunity to reflect on why these polls are done in the first place.
Pre-election polling cannot, nor does it, claim to predict the future. Public opinion constantly changes as new events occur and new information becomes available.  Due to the speed that information flows on the Internet, shifts in public opinion can happen more quickly than ever before.  While this does present a challenge, it does not have to spell the death of the industry.
Shortly after the election we find out who won.  For this reason, the “horse race” aspect of the polls, which is the focus of most intense interest during the campaign, quickly loses its value.  What gives the polls more lasting value is what they tell us about who voted for which candidate and for what reasons.  This helps us decide whether a particular candidate has received a “mandate” from the voters and, if so, a mandate for what.
Whether pre-election polling gets the next election right, the scrutiny of the election season makes it the perfect time to clarify any misconceptions about polling and its role.  We understand the flaws of polling and survey research more generally better than our audience.  So let’s take this opportunity to do what we do best and examine public opinion surrounding ourselves.  There will always be misconceptions regarding polling and survey research; we need to do our best to understand them.
From all of us on the AAPOR Council, we wish you all the happiest of holidays and we look forward to working with every one of you to shape the future of opinion and social research in 2017.