Besides Hillary Clinton, the biggest losers of the 2016 presidential election arguably were political pollsters. After the surprising Election Night results, that class of wonky math nerds came to be regarded by some voters as either incompetent or as a nefarious cabal of jet-set coastal elites—and either way, fit only to be ignored or scorned. This is understandably concerning to some of the math nerds themselves. The record must be set straight! Hence Where Did You Get This Number?: A Pollster’s Guide to Making Sense of the World, the new book from CBS elections guru Anthony Salvanto.
The book is billed as “an engaging, fast-paced tour inside the world of polling” that “shows how to look at the numbers the way the pros do.” Some people dismiss pollsters as quacks, Salvanto reasons, because of confusion about how and why they do what they do. His book is an attempt to change that, and maybe, along the way, to help soothe some of the nation’s partisan animosities.
Salvanto, who has a Ph.D. in political science, has been at CBS since 2002 and began covering presidential polling with the 2004 race. So he has been doing this a long time, and he has a lot of insights to offer. He explains how pollsters choose their sample sizes, how they frame questions to squeeze out unintended bias, and so on. All this is delivered in a friendly, conversational tone that does its best not to get too technical.
While describing how cell phones and the Internet have changed polling, Salvanto shares in passing a little story that illustrates a big problem for his field:
I was in a college classroom not long ago guest-speaking on how polls are done, and one young student raised his hand with what was as much a statement as a question. He held up his smartphone. “If I have an opinion, I can post it anywhere,” he said. “I can put it on my Facebook page, I can tweet it, I can rate my professor. Why would anyone need to take your poll to ‘make their voice heard’ today?”
I tried to make the case that anyone in our CBS polls would be part of a scientific survey, and that the findings would have voice beyond just his circle of followers or friends. He seemed only somewhat persuaded.
Whether the desire not to be bothered with polling will amount to an existential threat for the entire discipline remains to be seen.
Unfortunately, Where Did You Get This Number? is a pretty boring book. Salvanto does his best to spice things up with the typical pop-political writing tricks, from personal anecdotes to wacky analogies. (“Aggregations are to polling what a DJ’s nightclub playlist, mixing rhythms of various songs, is to a songwriter: good for times when the audience wants to hear the beat, but not listen to the music.”) But it’s tough to get around the fact that this is a primer for one of the driest and wonkiest of political pursuits. This is hammered home in the very first chapter, which is clearly intended to lure in the reader with a blow-by-blow of Election Night 2016—an intention hamstrung by all the characters being, well, pollsters: “Any change to the models?” “No.” “How does the size look?” “It’s the same as expected.” Everyone who is interested enough in this stuff to eat up this book surely already knows too much about polling to get much out of it.
In a way, this fact underscores the difficulty of the problem Salvanto correctly perceives: Aggressive posturing, not tepidly agreeable wonkery, is ascendant in our politics. One of President Trump’s bombastic, wildly misleading tweets caroms around the Internet and the naysayers scurry to sort out the obfuscations, the misinterpretations, the lies. Trump proclaims pollsters “FAKE NEWS,” and a pollster pounds out a smart, informative book to the contrary. But by the time he does, who cares anymore? Trump’s already on to the next thing, and it’s time to scurry again.