Is political polling broken beyond repair?

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

In the coming weeks, there will be a flood of analysis about who the real winners were in the 2020 election. Democrats can celebrate Joe Biden winning the presidency, while Republicans have reason to cheer after avoiding the massive blue wave that many predicted. There was one clear loser on Election Day: Political polls.

For the second election in a row, the polling industry underestimated the GOP’s strength in key pockets of the country. Biden will win the Electoral College by claiming states that most forecasters expected him to, but the margins in some of those states are much closer than polls suggested. States that looked to be competitive, like Florida and Texas, were won easily by Trump. Polling averages showed Biden with an 8-point advantage in Wisconsin, a state he’s likely to win by less than a percentage point. It’s too early to tell what Biden’s national vote margin will be, but it’s unlikely to reach the 10-point edge some polls — including the final Yahoo News/YouGov poll — gave him.

Some of the misses were even more substantial in down-ballot races. Maine was widely seen as one of the best chances for Democrats to flip a Senate seat after polls showed GOP incumbent Susan Collins trailing by as much as 8 points. Instead, Collins cruised to a comfortable victory. In South Carolina, Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison spent more than $100 million on a campaign that polls suggested gave him a legitimate chance of unseating prominent Republican Lindsey Graham. Graham won the race by more than 10 points. Instead of expanding their advantage in the House of Representatives, as most forecasts predicted, Democrats will likely see their majority shrink.

After Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, pollsters conducted in-depth reviews of their methodologies to understand how they underestimated his odds by so much. Heading into 2020, forecasters largely expressed confidence that they had identified the problem and that this year’s polls would be more accurate. 

Why there’s debate

It’s too early to tell why the polls were off again or by how much, but a second consecutive rough election is widely seen as a disaster for the polling industry. “The political polling profession is done,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz told Axios. There’s uncertainty built into every poll and major misses have been a regular occurrence ever since the inception of modern political polling in the 1930s. But polls getting it wrong two cycles in a row — with the error in the same direction both times — may indicate there’s something fundamentally broken in the industry, experts say. If polls can’t be trusted to be reasonably accurate, they shouldn’t exist at all, some critics argue.

Others say the media’s relationship with polls is the real problem. News organizations often treat polls as concrete predictions of who will win, rather than emphasizing the inherent uncertainty involved, critics say. When viewed this way, polls can create narratives about what “should” happen in elections that can influence the real-world decision making of lawmakers and may even make people less likely to vote. The media could help reverse this trend by deemphasizing polls in their political coverage and doing a better job of putting them in proper context, some argue.

Another group has come to the defense of the polling industry. The chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic presented an extraordinary challenge and may have made accurate polling essentially impossible, they say. Trump could also be a uniquely confounding figure who creates problems for pollsters that will disappear once he’s not on the ballot. Others say that, for all their flaws, polls are by far the best option for gauging public opinion. Without them, lawmakers would be far less responsive to the will of the people, they argue.

What’s next

Pollsters and forecasters are sure to do another deep dive to identify specific errors that caused them to misread the electorate, a process that can’t start in earnest until all the votes are counted. The final tallies may prove the polls to have been somewhat more accurate than they appeared on election night, if trends in late counting hold.

Perspectives

The obsession with polls warps our elections

“Beyond accuracy, this race raises another, potentially more important, concern about America’s prediction obsession: that endless consumption of poll data — updated, analyzed, dissected, and promoted on TV, the web, and even in partisan fundraising efforts — distorts the entire political process, affecting the behavior of both voters and politicians in troublingly unforeseeable ways.” — Ken Bensinger, John Templon and Brianna Sacks, BuzzFeed News

Trust in polls is irrevocably broken

“No one seems to know yet exactly what went wrong. But the answer almost doesn’t matter, unless you’re a professional pollster, because after two huge presidential flops, pollsters have lost the confidence of the press and public.” — David A. Graham, The Atlantic

Polls should only be relied on by campaigns and lawmakers

“Sure, campaigns and policy makers need to know these things. But the extent to which the rest of us have become versed in how other slivers of population plan to vote (or don’t, depending on whether they’re lying) is a sign of toxicity, a desperate attempt at gaining control and minimizing uncertainty in a situation that is inherently uncertain and uncontrolled.” — Cathy O’Neil, Bloomberg

The media must stop using polls in “horse race” coverage

“Overall, the media should remember that push-polling and speculating about political elections is not like covering the run-up to the Super Bowl. People love to make bold predictions about sporting events, because they are largely entertainment. … If the media recognized this, they would less likely get hung out to dry with wishful storylines about Texas turning blue or the flipping of the Senate.” — Media expert Jeffrey McCall to Fox News

Polls may fair better without Trump 

“In the end, like so many Trump-related things, there may be different rules when polling an election with him on the ballot. I’m a quantifiable type of human being; I want to see evidence. And I only have two elections with Donald Trump in them — but both seem to be behaving in ways that others don’t behave.” — Polling expert Christopher Borick to New York Times

The polling industry should die

“We should’ve put the industrial polling complex out of its misery in 2016 — at least as far as poll-obsessed media coverage goes.— Scott Maxwell, Orlando Sentinel 

It’s better to keep refining the polls than throw them out entirely

“It is far more useful to reckon with the limits of what even the most perfectly executed polling can tell us than to condemn the entire science of measuring public opinion. … Yes, poll design can be flawed, and quantitative models can miss the mark. But they’re still our best tools for understanding the thoughts, views and feelings of American society.” — David Byler, Washington Post

Polls are still our best option

“Without polls, we’re flying blind. It’s a tool we can use to help figure out what issues to illuminate, which people to talk to. A news organization can’t interview 1,500 people over a single weekend. A poll can yield their thinking.” — David Folkenflik, NPR

The polling industry needs top-to-bottom reform

“The polling industry is a wreck, and should be blown up.” — Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, Politico

Polls struggle to predict elections, but their non-election data is invaluable

“Preelection polling is unique from other public opinion surveys because there is an external measure – the actual vote – that can validate the data. … Polling data is used year-round, election season or otherwise, and captures public sentiments and attitudes in ways that don’t show just the ‘horse race’ of which candidate is ahead.” — Ryan W. Miller, USA Today

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images