Gallup Says Goodbye To The 2016 Horse Race : It's All Politics The longtime polling group has closely followed where the presidential candidates stand compared with each other going back to when FDR was running for president. Now, it's getting out of that race.
NPR logo Gallup Says Goodbye To The 2016 Horse Race

Gallup Says Goodbye To The 2016 Horse Race

A 1947 survey for the Gallup Poll, part of the collection George Gallup left to the University of Iowa, his alma mater. Ryan J. Foley/AP hide caption

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Ryan J. Foley/AP

A 1947 survey for the Gallup Poll, part of the collection George Gallup left to the University of Iowa, his alma mater.

Ryan J. Foley/AP

One of the brand names of American polling, Gallup, is letting the 2016 horse race simply gallop on by.

After a 2012 election in which the storied organization was further off than other polls, it has decided it won't conduct any head-to-head polling in the presidential primary or general election. Politico first reported the news.

That doesn't mean Gallup is out of the polling game entirely. The company will still conduct research about broader issue and opinion trends across the country.

"We believe to put our time and money and brainpower into understanding the issues and priorities is where we can most have an impact," Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport told Politico.

The decision comes at a time of seismic change for the polling industry. More and more, Americans are abandoning landlines for cellphones, making the bread and butter of the opinion polling — the evening phone interview — increasingly difficult to conduct.

"It's a really turbulent time in the industry right now," said Christopher Borick, the director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Pennsylvania. "There are changes in technology; challenges in reaching individuals through a probability-based approach are high. And we, as an industry, are making a lot of decisions on what we will or won't do."

The 2012 presidential election wasn't Gallup's finest moment. When Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight ranked the accuracy of major pollsters after the election ended, Gallup came in dead last.

"In late October, Gallup consistently showed Mr. Romney ahead by about six percentage points among likely voters, far different from the average of other surveys," Silver wrote. "[Gallup's] final poll of the election, which had Mr. Romney up by one point, was slightly better, but still identified the wrong winner in the election."

Of course, President Obama ultimately defeated Romney by about 4 percentage points.

There's some irony in Gallup struggling to navigate the changing world of communication and media consumption. The firm's big break, the 1936 presidential election, is a test case taught in college statistics courses across the country.

A high-profile magazine, Literary Digest, conducted a massive nationwide poll, one of the largest ever conducted, and used it to predict a landslide victory by Kansas Gov. Alf Landon. Polling a much smaller number of people, George Gallup came up with the correct result: an easy re-election for President Franklin Roosevelt.

The lesson: Selection bias leads to flawed polling results, no matter how many people are polled. As the University of Pennsylvania explains, "the ... major problem with the poll was in the selection process for the names on the mailing list, which were taken from telephone directories, club membership lists, lists of magazine subscribers, etc. Such a list is guaranteed to be slanted toward middle and upper-class voters, and by default to exclude lower-income voters."

That, combined with other problems, led to a polling result that looked nothing like the actual voters who turned out to vote in the midst of the Great Depression.

But George Gallup got his sampling methods right and launched a company that is still conducting polls to this day.

That's why Gallup's decision to sit out the horse race surprised many people in the polling community.

"Gallup has for generations been the brand associated with presidential polling," said Borick. "For many people ... polls and Gallup were synonymous in many ways. What did the Gallup Poll say?"

In 2016, at least when it comes to which candidates are up and which are down, the answer will be: nothing.