The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Media Polling

There has been much debate this election cycle—academic and otherwise—on the impact of polls in creating political realities. Since the unexpected rise of Donald Trump to frontrunner status, many have expected the Trump bubble will burst, and argued over how and why it formed in the first place. As we saw last week in Iowa, Ted Cruz’s victory and Marco Rubio’s unexpected close finish are causing many to call into question Trump’s actual level of support when voters get to the ballot box. But how do you explain the fact that Trump has dominated in the polls for months, even in Iowa just days from the caucuses?

Some have asserted this cycle how media attention feeds polls, which then feeds media attention, which then feeds newer polls, and so on. But to what extent does media coverage specifically of polls feed polls?  Rather, how does a voter’s expectations for a candidate’s standing effect their voting behaviors? An experiment by Global Strategy Group demonstrates the potential impact knowledge of poll results can have on who you say you will vote for. And it begs the question: to what extent is the media’s intense and ever growing focus on polls influencing voter decisions?

In November of last year, we ran a survey where we asked Republican voters the same basic vote question- if the Republican primary election were held today, for which candidate would you vote?  Half of the respondents were also shown a chart from HuffPost Pollster displaying the aggregate results of recent public opinion polls, which showed Trump with a decisive lead.  Among respondents who saw the polling results, Trump did 10 points better, with support for less popular candidates much less likely among respondents who saw the chart showing Trump as the expected winner.

 voter trump pic


While bandwagon effect of opinion polls is nothing new, it’s worth considering the increasing influence of media’s coverage of polls particularly in the context of this Presidential election cycle that has often focused singularly on those for Donald Trump. Ultimately, Iowa was the first real test for the media poll troll that is Donald Trump, and the results speak for themselves. Whether or not the media will adjust their borderline obsessive coverage of polling results remains to be seen.

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