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How to understand what the polls are telling us

  • Published at 05:49 am November 3rd, 2020
US election
File photo: Silhouettes of attendees holding signs in front of an American flag are seen during a campaign rally held by Democratic 2020 US presidential candidate and US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), in Sioux City, Iowa, US, January 26, 2020. REUTERS

Will a lack of voter enthusiasm hurt Biden?

A running narrative among many people is the fact that the polls predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the presidential elections in 2016, but despite what the polls said, she lost. Therefore, they don’t mean anything. The polls will be wrong again and Trump will win a second time around.

Misrepresented polls

This misconception emerges from the fact that the mainstream media misrepresented the polls. They took the national average of the polling which Clinton was leading by 3.2% (Fig 1) and used it to sell the narrative that Clinton would win the presidency.

However, in reality, Americans don’t elect their presidents that way. Who wins the presidency doesn’t depend on who won more votes nationally but on who won the electoral college, which depends on who won each of the states. As a result of this, when Hillary Clinton lost the presidency, people naturally concluded that the polls were wrong. However, just like the polls predicted, Hillary Clinton did win more votes nationally.

In this regard, she was ahead of Trump by 2.1%. This means that the national polls were off by only 1.1%, which is considered quite accurate. So, the polls weren’t necessarily wrong, it’s the pollsters who used the polls to say that Hillary Clinton had a 90+% chance of being the next president of the United States who were wrong.

This is where we have to talk about the statewide polling. Trump won the presidency because he managed to beat Hillary Clinton in a lot of the Rust Belt states. Namely, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The polls predicted that he was going to win Ohio and so he did. However, the polls did predict a Hillary Clinton win in the remaining three states and yet, she lost all three of these states.

Was the polling wrong in these states? No, not necessarily. If you look at the RCP polling average of Pennsylvania (Fig 2), the polls were off by 2.8%, this is within acceptable margins of error. However, the polls of Michigan (Fig 3) and Wisconsin (Fig 4) were off by larger margins. It was off by 3.9% in the former and by 7.2% in the latter.

Why were they so off in these two states? The answer is simple: Late deciders. The polls weren’t wrong in predicting who had more support among already decided voters, it’s just that Trump was able to win over more undecided voters than Hillary Clinton.

If you look at the polling, in all three states, the polls were accurate in predicting what percentage of the votes Hillary Clinton would get within a fraction of a percent. Donald Trump succeeded in winning over the ones who were undecided last minute.

If you add up the support of both the candidates in each state, the remaining percentage will be the undecided voters. By the time the polls ended, in Pennsylvania, 8.5% of the voters were undecided, in Michigan, 9.6% of the voters were undecided, and in Wisconsin, 12.9% of the voters were undecided. 

If you look at the difference between the polling average and the final votes, you’ll see how many of these undecided voters each candidate won over. In Pennsylvania, Trump won over 3.5% of these voters compared to Hillary’s 0.7%. In Michigan, Trump won over 3.9% of these voters compared to almost none for Hillary, and in Wisconsin, Trump won over 6.9% of these voters while Hillary basically stayed stagnant here as well.

The fact that Trump was doing a good job with last-minute voters is also evident in the fact that the gap between Clinton and Trump was narrowing as the elections got nearer (Hillary stayed stagnant while Trump gained support).

What about the 2020 polls?

The elections will be very different this time around, mainly because of three reasons: 

The gap between Biden and Trump isn’t narrowing. This means that Trump isn’t succeeding in winning over last-minute voters the way he did in 2016. 

Biden is already comfortably over 50% in a lot of these states. This means that even if Trump wins over every single last-minute voter in these states, it still won’t be enough to win against Biden. 

Even if you take into account the margin of error, Biden still remains above 50% in most of these states. This means that as long as the polls are roughly accurate within an acceptable margin, Biden should still remain above 50% in these states even if Trump wins over a vast majority of the last minute voter.

However, having said all this, at the end of the day, polls don’t decide winners, voters do. One of the many reasons I think Hillary lost in 2016 was because of the media narrative that she was certainly going to win. People were so convinced of this that they didn’t feel like their individual vote would make a difference. They were less enthusiastic about going out to vote for her.

Lack of enthusiasm is something Biden could suffer from as well in 2020. Not only because of the media narrative, but also because his supporters are generally unenthusiastic about him, unlike Trump supporters or Bernie supporters.

Shams Ishtiaque Rahman is a freelance contributor.

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