Debates Need Snap Polls to Hold Pundits Accountable

Shortly after the first GOP debate, most pundits rushed to declare Donald Trump the big loser and Marco Rubio the big winner. They turned out to be dead wrong.

After the first Democratic debate, most pundits declared Hillary Clinton the big winner. They turned out to probably have been right.

But it was hard to know if they had gotten it right, because the track record of the pundit class in determining debate winners (insofar as such as such debates actually have winners and losers, which itself is debatable in some cases) is frankly abysmal. Bernie Sanders supporters had every reason to be skeptical of the conventional wisdom shortly after the debate: the skepticism of Donald Trump supporters was well warranted, after all. When establishment pundits declare that an establishment candidate has won a debate, one should always take that with a grain of salt. And it’s more than just a bit problematic: the media can actually serve to sway public opinion away from the candidate that viewers actually felt won a debate, to assist a candidate the pundits preferred while convincing people who didn’t actually watch the debate.

But there’s a way to fix all this–one the media had begun to implement back in 2008. Rather than let the cocktail circuit bloviate over who won or lost, the press instituted real-time focus group dial-tests during the debates, and snap polls conducted immediately afterward.

The combination of these effects provided instant accountability, especially the snap polls. Analysts can go back and forth about the reliability of the focus groups and whether the dial test feedback served to simply distract from the debate itself, but the statistically valid snap polls of debate viewers could unequivocally tell you who really won. Rather than have pundits tell viewers who they thought won the debate, the chattering class had to try to explain why debate watchers thought a candidate had won, no matter what they themselves thought.

This is a good thing. If a pundit is so out of step with the electorate that they can’t adequately give voice to the rationale behind respondents interviewed in snap polls, perhaps it’s time to replace the pundit. Certainly, most of the pundits who declared Maro Rubio the winner and Donald Trump the loser of the first debate are so out of touch with the conservative electorate that they shouldn’t be hired to cover GOP politics for a local weekly, much less a national outlet.

It’s depressing but not surprising in this context that suddenly snap polls went out the window after the 2008 cycle. Perhaps it was a bit too much accountability for the news outlets to handle. But the genie is out of the bottle: people don’t trust the press to declare debate winners and losers anymore, nor should they.

Bring back the snap polls, and let the viewers actually decide.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.