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

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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:

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We've never been very good at being conservative.

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This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

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