November 4, 2020

While political pollsters seem to have fixed the problems from 2016 with state-level data that led to misses in Wisconsin and Michigan, they may have created new problems that led to misses in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio.

The blue wave that so many predicted did not materialize.

There will surely be another deep dive into what went wrong with the polling, just like there was in 2016. And it’s way too early to make broad generalizations, since the votes aren’t even counted yet.

But here are some of the questions that pollsters are likely to ask. Much of this comes out of the head of David Dutwin, senior vice president at NORC at the University of Chicago and past president of the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers.

Are the models off?

Horse race polling is unique because researchers are asking people what they are going to do, or what they plan to do. In the past, 10 to 20% of the people who said they were going to vote did not, and a smaller group 10 to 15% of the people who said they weren’t going to vote, actually did.

Those models may be off, Dutwin said.

In addition to that, when turnout is predicted to be high, most models estimate a bump for Democrats, based on past voter behavior. That assumption may no longer be valid either. But it’s hard to tell until all the votes are counted.

“Enthusiasm has been an inconsistent predictor of turnout, so we take it with a grain of salt,” Dutwin said.

Why do polls accurately capture the national sentiment but miss on some states?

There may be different reasons for polling misses in different states. Clearly in Florida pollsters missed the large percentage of Hispanic voters in the Miami area who broke for President Donald Trump, Dutwin said.

Interestingly though, Dutwin pointed out, in Arizona (and Minnesota) the miss in polling generally undercounted the Democratic vote.

In Iowa, Ann Selzer, president of the polling firm Selzer & Company, nailed the Trump +7 point victory when almost every other poll was pointing to a tie.

Is the rhetoric on polls impacting who responds?

Since 2016, President Trump and other Republicans have repeatedly said that pollsters, as well as journalists, cannot be trusted. That may impact who responds to polls. If Trump supporters are less likely to respond to the polls, the measurements would be unreliable.

“It’s hard to fix that kind on phenomenon,” Dutwin said.

What’s next?

After 2016, the polling industry did a deep dive into what went wrong and published this report as a means of restoring credibility and encouraging best practices. A similar examination is likely to take place once the races have all been decided.

Polling, like journalism, is a tool that assists in the nation’s democratic checks and balances. If it doesn’t work or it isn’t trusted, democracy itself is weaker.

Poynter is providing around-the-clock coverage and analysis of the 2020 election. Follow along on our live blog for more.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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