A report found that the 2020 political polls were the worst in 40 years. Three ways this changes politics in the future


But polls in the 2020 election turned out to be even worse than those in 2016, according to a report commissioned by the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) and published this week.

A task force examined 2,858 polls, including 529 national presidential polls and 1,572 state-level presidential polls in 2020. The conclusion: These polls overstated the margin between President Biden and Trump by 3.9% in the vote popular nationwide and 4.3% in state polls. And collectively, it was the biggest polling error in 40 years for the national popular vote, and the biggest in 20 years for state-level votes.

The problems weren’t just limited to an incorrect assessment of Trump’s voters. In fact, the polls were worse than reality for Republicans running for governor and the US Senate. The best example might be here in New England, where Maine Senator Susan Collins, a Republican, was easily re-elected despite her Democratic challenger leading all credible polls for the previous 14 months.

But here’s the real kicker: Those who have studied the problem say they have no idea what exactly happened, or how to fix it for the next time. These pollsters had already made the appropriate changes from the 2016 election assuming a higher turnout from rural and less educated voters than before the Trump era. Moreover, while 2016 featured voters who made up their minds at the last minute, in 2020 the decisions have been made for a long time. In some cases, according to the report, voters had already voted even before being questioned.

As the report frustratingly puts it, “to identify conclusively why the polls overestimated the Democratic-Republican margin over certified voting seems impossible with the data available.”


This suggests that the way journalists and news consumers read these polls will need to change. Here are three ways in the future to do it.

1. Polls are always important, but we need to talk about them more broadly

There are a lot of polls now. And there are already a lot of polls before the 2022 cycle. Saying that everyone should just ignore them will never happen and is not necessary.

As the polls were lagged three percentage points, they captured the trend lines in unison. In 2020, they showed which states would likely decide the presidential election, and they were right.

So in the future polls matter, but the way we talk about them should change: Journalists and others might more often say that races are “too close to be announced” depending on the margin of error. for every candidate interviewed, and avoid getting drawn into a race that looks more competitive than it could possibly be, as one candidate is up two percentage points to four.

2. Incorporate a democratic bias into the survey results

Another way to look at polls going forward is to read them assuming Democrats might vote two or three points higher than reality. That’s not to say pollsters are bad actors. The report wondered, for example, if a registered white working-class Republican from a rural county who agreed to take a poll instead of just hanging up was perhaps more open to voting for a Democrat. . After all, Trump and many Republicans have made a talking point that the polls are all bogus or all to make Republicans look bad.

This could mean that some wouldn’t even bother to participate when asked.

In other words, if a poll shows a Democrat up six points over a Republican, then maybe the race is closer to a tie.

3. Be open-minded that bad polls are something that happened when Trump was on the ballot

It’s possible that Trump was on the ballot, and the unique voters he pulled out, could be the reason these polls were wrong. (This is not an excuse for them to be wrong in the first place, just a theory.)

In 2018, after all, the the polls were actually quite accurate by showing the main Democratic gains. The Georgia Senate second-round polls in January were also correct. What neither got was Trump, himself, on the ballot.

Trump is not expected to be on the ballot again in 2022 and who knows for 2024. But it is possible that Trump’s presence offers a unique bad moment in the poll.

James Pindell can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on twitter @jamespindell.

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