Three months from Election Day 2020, America is still running the risk of being blind and deaf when it comes to several critical aspects of our presidential election process.
In reporting about the 2020 presidential contest, at least some of those stories likely quote nationwide polls.
Yes, there are some reports on the statewide contests between the Democrats and President Trump. But the lion’s share focus on the national picture.
That’s what we saw earlier in this election cycle, with the major headlines coming out of the ABC News/Washington Post poll showing President Trump trailing five different Democratic candidates nationally. Publicizing polls like that may sound innocent enough, but here’s the problem: that’s not how we play this game.
Hopefully, most Americans have figured out that both the primary elections to choose a presidential nominee and the general election to select the president are state-by-state contests.
Yet most stories about the Democratic primary race focus on Joe Biden’s enduring lead in national polls and not on how the Democrats did in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
It’s as if we’re intentionally blinding ourselves to the most pertinent facts every time anyone talks about nationwide polls.
The simple solution to all of this undue focus on national polls is to simply focus more on the state-by-state polls, right? That’s what The New York Times did earlier with a special focus on the polls in six battleground states.
That makes sense in theory, but presents a new problem: statewide polls are much less reliable than nationwide surveys. Americans found that out on Election Night in 2016, when polls predicting victories for Hillary Clinton in the critical swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin all turned out to be wrong.
If you’re looking for a definitive reason why those crucial swing state polls were wrong, good luck. In the almost four years since the 2016 election, we’ve heard several explanations that either don’t hold up to scrutiny or cannot be objectively proven.
Perhaps the best example of that is the early explanation promoted by some pollsters who said that the 2016 swing state polls were wrong because most of them did not accurately weight them based on the respondents’ level of education.
But here’s the problem with that theory: the few statewide polls that were weighted for education levels also got the actual election results wrong. In some cases, The New York Times reported they were even more off the mark than the non-education weighted polls.
The other prevailing explanations are hard to fix or even prove. One theory is that a large majority of undecided voters decided to vote for Trump at the last minute. Another is that Trump was and is supported by disaffected Americans who are very unlikely to respond to pollsters at all.
Either way, voters and pundits alike are still flying pretty blind when it comes to statewide polls in this general election system that’s determined by statewide results.
So, on the one hand, American voters are blinded to more essential facts because of the dominating focus on national polls in presidential elections. On the other hand, doing the right thing by switching that focus to statewide polling would subject voters to data that’s more likely to be incorrect. It’s the blind leading the blind.
But other than that, everything’s fine.
There’s a multi-faceted silver lining to all of this if we’re all willing to admit the truth about this polling conundrum.
First, voters could do with more focus on what candidates are saying about the issues rather than the “horserace” aspect of our elections.
Many of the very same journalists who have been guilty of making the bulk of election “reporting” merely a series of repeating poll results have started to at least realize this is a problem for the health of our democracy and their profession.
Second, candidates who become more sensitive to the likely inaccuracy of statewide polling should become more likely to visit more of those states more often.
One of the great lessons of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 bid was the fact that her decision not to make more frequent visits to key Rustbelt states came back to burn her.
It wasn’t that the Clinton campaign didn’t think visiting battleground states was important; it’s just that it clearly didn’t think Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan were battleground states at all.
With all we now know about the lack of reliability of state polls, the lesson major campaigns should now learn is that almost every state is a potential battleground.
That’s why Clinton’s defeat should have led to a much better informed political class that chose to abandon conspiracy theory explanations for the 2016 results, rely less on polls, and focus on how to better listen to and connect with more voters.
When Richard Nixon made a big point of visiting all 50 states in the 1960 election, his eventual loss in that contest taught political pundits that the better way to win the White House was to game the system and only focus on battleground states. But that’s led to a disconnect between politicians and many voters ever since.
The reality that every statewide poll is likely to be inaccurate and the additional reality that we don’t even know why should do a lot to wipe out that disconnect. At the very least, it should open everyone’s ears to a few more voices a lot more often.
So here’s where we are today: two national polls show Joe Biden holds a double-digit lead over President Trump. Real Clear Politics shows Biden’s lead at 8%. Based on the results of those polls, President Trump should go ahead and schedule the moving vans to pickup Melania’s goodies from the White House November 7th. (That gives her a few days to pack after the Biden victory) And everyone knows that the only reason she hung in there with the President was so she could bask in the soft lights and glowing media who could not get enough of her during these four years.
Uh-oh! Before you throw yourself into the middle of all that, remember this: election morning in 2016, of the 53 national polls which Real Clear Politics covered, 52 of them in their final poll guaranteed America that Hillary was a slam dunk winner by as many as 13 points in one poll. Imagine the shock and horror as the late-night results came in.
By the way, the only national poll that picked Trump to win was the poll from the University of Southern California!
I’m certain that the decision-makers at these polling companies are carefully considering their polling methods and the content of their polls. They certainly cannot bear to think something similar to that in 2016 could possibly happen again. For Trump to win in November would require a second polling atomic disaster!
Do you know what else we might consider? Those polling companies and their employees each have political preferences. Do you think it’s possible they let their biases impact the “reported” results of those 2016 polls? What else could have happened? The only other possible explanation was a HUGE number of those polled simply lied in those telephone interviews. That could NEVER happen, right? What American would even consider being dishonest in a telephone poll response?
It boils down to this for me: Most of these national polls that we see every day are taken from a sample of about 1000 Americans. Some are not even of “probable voters,” but are of “registered voters.” Conventional polling wisdom is that to accurately reflect a true representation of the political leanings of those surveyed, a sample must be weighted based on the actual voting split during the last presidential election. That would be the 2016 election.
Is it prudent for these “experts” to base their political reputations on what is supposed to be the voting appetite of about 130 million voters from a sample of only 1000 people?
I don’t call doing so prudent. If the most recent POTUS election is even slightly representative of November’s polling results, the numbers and samples that are used to create these polls are little more than a crap-shoot.
That doesn’t sound like a smart business model to me. My assumption is the polling companies really don’t care! Even if they miss with their projections the final results, millions of Americans (and thousands of polling company “experts”) can spend the next four years “repairing” their sampling models.
That’s really not a bad idea! Accuracy in polling: that’s really not a critical job. No matter what the November election results are, there will be plenty of 2022 campaign officials who are “dialing for campaign dollars” who need polls to show that their candidates are leading in their races.
Gotta have a great story to get an excellent campaign donation. And pollsters are surely outstanding sales folks. After all, they sold a campaign or two on the fact they can magically predict election outcomes.