A lot has been made in the last several election cycles about polling and its reliability. FiveThirtyEight famously said in 2016 that Hillary Clinton had an 85% chance of winning the Presidency before Trump shocked everyone and proved the polls wrong.
It led a lot of people to ask questions about how effective our polling science really is. Are the right audiences being captured? Have mobile phones made the old way of doing things obsolete? Is there really a way to predict the mood of the electorate or the outcomes of our elections?
Pollsters have taken on that flop in 2016 and adapted, working to identify the now famous ‘silent majority’ and incorporate populations that were underrepresented in polling to better reflect the electorate.
From Pew Research:
A new analysis from Pew Research Center examines the accuracy of polling on more than 20 topics, ranging from Americans’ employment and vaccination status to whether they’ve served in the military or experienced financial hardship. The analysis shows that, despite low response rates, national polls like the Center’s come within a few percentage points, on average, of benchmarks from high response rate federal surveys. The closer a poll estimate is to the benchmark, the more accurate it is considered to be.
So, with just 40ish days to go until Election Day and polls coming out from all over the place, what should we be looking for?
First and foremost, take a look at the source. For the most part, campaign pollsters pick a side and work for R or D campaigns. That’s how they build their business and it informs the polls they perform. By the nature of the questions, polls from these sources typically skew friendlier one way or the other. Obviously, they are still incentivized to be accurate (otherwise who would hire them) but there is typically a bias based on the universes they address. Don’t fall into this trap.
Next, let’s get into the numbers. A major factor to note is the intensity with which respondents come in. That’s why you see “agree” versus “strongly agree” for example. Why is that important? If you feel intensely about something, you’re more likely to take time out of your November 8th to go vote about it!
Take some of the approval polls we’ve seen recently. There has been a lot of talk about how the Congressional map is shifting in favor of the Democrats, but looking at this series of polls from Rasmussen, why is that? Biden’s “strongly approve” numbers have remained relatively consistent since July. The real shift the the reduction in respondents who “strongly disapprove” of Biden’s performance. That number has come down from a high of 47% in August to hovering at 40-41% now. That’s a pretty dramatic shift that would indicate people who we’re motivated to get out and vote in the midterms, traditionally a referendum on the first term President, may not be as motivated any more.
Now we turn to the issues. This takes little to no explanation because whoever you are, you know what issues are polling well for candidates. Why? Because that’s what you see on TV. When the Democrat’s campaign ad comes on and says “I will fight for greener energy, a woman’s right to choose, and getting assault weapons off the street,” you know that this is an electorate where climate change, abortion rights, and illegal guns are polling well. When the Republican’s ad comes on right after and says “my opponent has supported Biden’s price hikes, open borders, and called to defund the police,” you guessed it, the issues that poll well for them are inflation, the border, and crime.
Polling has become an industry where science meets art. The numbers inform the creative and the creative can influence the numbers. Whether it’s knowing that your candidate (or your opponent) is unknown to your voters or knowing which issue to push because that could be what gets you over the finish line, polls are still and will continue to be an essential piece of our political discourse.