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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Harrop: No need to gorge on ’24 horse race

By Froma Harrop
Published: September 18, 2023, 6:01am

The presidential horse race is off and running on TV news and on social media. History tells us that the poll numbers at this point reveal close to nothing about the future. The political pundits portray their analyses as thunderbolts carried down from Mount Olympus. But frankly, anyone could do their job.

Polls might be of interest close to the election, but we’re not close or anywhere near. The election is almost 14 months away, and if you recall, polls 14 days before the 2016 election showed Hillary Clinton winning.

The polls serve two purposes to the news outlets. One is to keep their partisan viewers tuned in. There’s big business in stoking the public’s anxieties. Thus, as one who shudders at the prospect of another Donald Trump presidency, I’ve been feeling badly used by media usually deemed friendly to my views.

You know who you are. You’re the ones going on and on about recent polls suggesting a very close race between Trump and Joe Biden.

The other reason for TV’s addiction to political polls is that posting a bunch of numbers and having some blustering guy explain their significance with unearned confidence is cheap. Political opinionators cost a lot less than sending a team to cover the war in Ukraine. That conflict is not only gripping news; its outcome may determine the future of Western civilization. The views of Republican caucusgoers in Iowa less so.

The meaninglessness of current polls can be guessed by the wrongness of their analyzers last time around.

On Feb. 19, 2020, a writer for New York Magazine, noting that Bernie Sanders had won both Iowa and New Hampshire, was even more impressed by “Joe Biden’s catastrophic showings.” Biden, he declared, was “weakened (perhaps fatally).”

An ABC News/Washington Post poll had Sanders “16 points ahead of his closest competitor.” And Sanders’ “closest competitor” wasn’t even the guy who eventually won the nomination and is now president. It was Michael Bloomberg.

An Axios headline at the time: “Poll: Joe Biden loses status as most electable Democrat.” And on Feb. 25, Reuters reported that “Sanders surpasses Biden among African American voters,” according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.

Again, we’re still 14 months away from the election. The above declarations were made nine months before. And that was a mere week before the Super Tuesday primaries, when Biden blew away the opposition. He won 10 out of 14 primaries — including Massachusetts, Minnesota and Texas, states that the punditry assured us were in the bag for Bernie.

The very African American voters who, a few days before, were allegedly preferring Sanders gave Biden a huge victory. Had it occurred to the oracles that Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire tend to be more left-leaning than those in the South or even Massachusetts? Perhaps not.

A CNN analysis described Biden’s win as an “unbelievable political comeback.” It was unbelievable only if you worshipped early polls and believed in the punditry’s psychic powers to divine their meaning.

Oh, we can take seriously the jabber about political “wild cards,” approval ratings and where the “proverbial” headwinds are blowing. On the other hand, we don’t have to.