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Data journalist G. Elliott Morris talks polling on campus

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At a panel about public opinion polling, called “Is Polling Good for Democracy?” executive director of the Data-Driven Social Science Initiative Edward Freeland ’92 introduced G. Elliott Morris, a data journalist for The Economist to discuss his new book “Strength in Numbers.” The panel was sponsored by the Princeton Survey Research Center (PSRC) and the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics (CDSP).

At the start of the panel, Morris said his book was originally supposed to explain the “catastrophic” polling results that incorrectly predicted the 2016 election, when most every public poll predicted a victory for Hillary Clinton. Morris told attendees that his book had to be “basically rewritten” after the 2020 presidential election.

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“I had to rewrite about half [of the book] to explain how polls work,” Morris said. The revised text is what he calls a “defense” of polling as an essential tool for democracy.

“Legislators do [pay attention to polls] and do rely on public opinion, '' he said. 

Morris, however, cautioned that that polling is inherently uncertain. “[Fewer] than five percent of citizens that pollsters reach out to answer phones. Those they do talk to aren’t always representative,” he said. “What pollsters don’t know is that they must extrapolate.” 

He further explained that the more extrapolation that pollsters need to perform, the more the margin of error grows. 

In an interview with The Daily Princetonian prior to the panel, Morris said that part of the public’s misunderstanding of how polling works is due to media organizations’ portrayal of elections and polling data. Polls, Morris explained, don’t translate well to the media’s coverage of elections as “horse race[s].” 

“It requires a lot of hard information to understand,” he added. “There is not a [data journalist] in every newsroom,” Morris said. 

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Morris shared at the panel, and in his interview with the ‘Prince,’ that he was “lucky” to have the chance to present after the elections as it allowed him a chance to debrief with students after the “misfires” that occurred in 2016, and 2020.  

“Young people are fed a narrative that they don’t matter. But individual people do matter.” Morris told the ‘Prince.’  

“People should know that the polls are tools for them. And journalists should know that polls are for the people.”

The panel was held on Nov. 17 in Robertson Hall Bowl 016 from 4:30 to 6 p.m.

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Jasmyn Dobson is a staff writer for the ‘Prince’ who often covers SPIA. 

Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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