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

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

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:


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend