The US presidential election polling is finally worth following, here’s how
Now that both the Democrats and the Republicans have held their conventions and Labor Day weekend has passed, the US campaign for president is officially in full swing. This is exciting news for those of us who love to follow the polling, because now it actually means something.
That said, when talking polling, it’s critical to note that the polls aren’t crystal balls, they are snapshots of what is happening at the time the data is gathered. Upward, downward or stable trends can help us understand how the news, campaign events and other happenings might be influencing public opinion, but polls are not predictive, as many news articles might lead you to believe.
It’s hard to blame journalists and editors for ginning up the so-called horse race of the polls — they are exciting and even a bit sexy! But too many journalists that report on the polls do so without much or any training in quantitative methodology and use meaningless terms such as “statistical tie” which drives political scientists up a wall. Also, not all polls are equal, some have excellent methodology and others are less reliable. Like most things in politics and international relations, it’s complicated and the press doesn’t like complicated all that much. That said, I will attempt to uncomplicate U.S presidential polling here with some questions and answers.
Why is there both national and state by state polling?
National polls have always been considered important because it has always been — and really continues to be — very difficult to win the electoral college without winning the national popular vote. Sure, we have two such elections in recent memory, 2000 and 2016, so we know full well that it is not impossible. This is why state-level polling is much more precise in terms of getting an idea where things might go on November 3. The problem is that not all states are getting the same amount of polling done in them, and especially not always high-quality polling.
How does the electoral system impact polling and the election results?
Navigating U.S. presidential election polls has always been complicated by the electoral college system, which gives a more weight to voters in more rural, less populated states, as does the U.S. Congress. This is because the electoral system is based on a state’s representation in congress. All 50 have two senators and then a percentage of the 435 members of the House of Representatives. No matter how small a state is, it gets at least one representative. So, the state with the smallest population, Wyoming, with a population of 578,000, has two senators and a representative, which means they have three electoral votes. Compare that with my home state of California, the most populous state, with nearly 40 million people. It has two senators and 53 representatives for a total of 55 electoral votes. This might seem like a lot, but California is woefully underrepresented: a Wyomingite’s vote counts about 3.6 times more than a Californian’s in the presidential election because those three votes represent so many less people.
All that said, for most states, all a candidate has to do is get more than 50% of the popular vote there in order to win all of the electoral votes. This has a profound effect on campaign strategy and polling. Wyoming and California are great examples of reliably Republican red and Democratic blue states. The only reason candidates go to California is to raise money, and while this might irritate Californians, it makes sense. California will vote for Biden. Hillary Clinton won California by nearly 4.3 million votes, that’s more than the nearly 3 million vote advantage she had over him in the national popular vote. It’s a great example of how this system makes the popular vote irrelevant — all that matters is getting to 51%, anything above that just goes to waste and if a state is in the “solidly Democratic ore Republican” column, then there’s no need to campaign there.
Why are the so-called swing states so important?
The swing states, sometimes called battleground states, therefore become important because they can swing towards one candidate or the other, so to speak, so in theory, they can be influenced by the campaigns. Pollsters don’t necessarily agree on which states are in play. Polling website Fivethiryeight highlights nine of the closest races: North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Iowa, Texas (yes, Texas), Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Real Clear Politics lists just six “top battleground states”: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Arizona, leaving out Texas, Georgia and Ohio. Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates four states as “toss ups”: Arizona, Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina with another four leaning Republican and five leaning Democratic. These four states are at the core of all swing state analysis right now.
Beyond having polls that show the state could move towards either candidate, having a hefty number of electoral votes is also of interest. This is why Florida is so important, with its 29 votes and why Michael Bloomberg just announced that he will spend $100 million in the state to help Biden win it.
But again, the difficulty with polling in individual states is that it’s uneven, not all states get the same amount of polling, let alone high-quality polling because it is expensive. This was a big problem for Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2016, all swing states in 2016 and again this cycle. Back in June, the New York Times and Siena College made headlines with a deep dive of polling into the swing states that Trump won in 2016: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina. This was very welcomed by analysts and pollsters alike.
Do the Republicans really have an advantage in the electoral system?
The short answer to this is yes, because as we’ve seen above, the electoral system gives more weight to rural voters, who tend to lean more Republican and less to urban ones, which tend to go for Democrats. This is why you’ll find Democrats wanting to change the electoral system or add more seats to the House of Representatives. Republicans mostly believe the system works in their favor. But demographic changes, especially the rise of Latino voters in the U.S. are changing how some states vote and just the fact that Texas is seen as a state in play by many pollsters this cycle shows that while this Republican advantage may likely hold for this election, it will probably shift over the next few years.
What polls should I follow?
There is a dizzying array of polling going on in the U.S. and so I find it most helpful to go to websites that collect up polling from lots of sources to give a more complete picture of what’s happening. My personal favorite is Nate Silver’s Fivethirtyeight.com, which has had various iterations and media affiliations over the years. What I like about Fivethirtyeight is that it’s a poll of polls with weighting for things like the polling organization’s rating and more recent over older polls. This is especially true of their national polls tracking but also in their election forecast which is a prediction model based on state polling, even though I find all the cartoon-like animation a bit annoying.
RealClearPolitics is another reliable place to find both national polling and map with state by state figures (and a lot more “toss up” states. Another one that has traditionally been popular with pundits is the Cook Political Report which also has a map that reflects the state by state polling and another is Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which is also pretty solid analysis despite the cringe-worthy name. These are just a few of the many, many websites with national polling and electoral map analysis. Something that can be fun to do and many of these websites allow for, is to build your own electoral map prediction based on how you think they polls will go.
What about the forecasts or predictive models?
I blame these for a sizable part of the polling confusion in 2016. Why? Because most voters and journalists are used to looking at raw national polling numbers or electoral maps of state polls with candidates within a few points of each other or one with a clear lead. But with these prediction models, they are using mathematical formulas involving polling to run simulations of election outcomes.
This meant that the Upshot for the New York Times was typically giving Hillary Clinton a 90% or higher chance of winning, which dropped to 85% on election day. The Huffington Post was giving her a 98–99% chance of winning. So, it’s easy to see why how this would lull many analysts and voters alike into the false idea that Hillary had the election in the bag when at that same time, she was only leading by about 3.9 points in the national polls on election day. About the worst use of polling I saw in the 2016 cycle was here in Spain, where a journalist from El País took an average of five prediction models. These all had wildly differing methodologies and it just makes no scientific sense at all to average them and believe that figure tells anything of value.
Fivethirtyeight was notably more conservative in its assessment, giving Clinton a 71.4% chance of winning to Trump’s 28.6%, but was still subject to scathing criticism. But the thing is, as Nate Silver explained in post-election analysis, this meant that nearly 30% of the time, their model came up with a win for Trump. That’s a considerable chance of winning. But again, predictive or forecast models are relatively new and it’s just too easy to get carried away with these seemingly big percentages as compared to what we see in polling.
For 2020, Fivethirtyeight is presenting their forecast not as percentages but as a chance out of 100 of winning, which is helpful. Right now, they give Biden a 76 in 100 chance of winning compared to Trump’s 24 in 100. That’s slightly better than the chance that Clinton had, but again, in 24 out of 100 election simulations by their model, Trump wins. That’s still a reasonable chance. I recommended following them and their podcast if you really like polling, but keep in mind that forecast, electoral maps and national polling a very different measures.
Are Trump voters really so shy with pollsters?
The short answer is no, Trump voters are not shy at all, they are more than happy to declare their support. However, the kind of people who support Trump are less likely to answer an unknown phone call and/or talk to a pollster. Americans are bombarded by unknown phone calls from telemarketers and the like so that’s already a big challenge for pollsters, but also Trump supporters are especially wary of anything they see as the political establishment, such as polling firms and are likely to just hang up. Because the Trump phenomenon was new in 2016, not all pollsters caught this as well as the education metric.
Nate Silver calls this the “dirty little secret of polling” but weighting is a fact of life because it’s impossible to take a random sample that is perfectly balanced for race, gender, education, socio-economic level, political leanings, geographical location, etc. So, once a poll is done, if there are not enough men, researchers will simply take the male responses that they have and adjust it, so it counts for 49.2% of the results. This is, of course, a deeply challenging part of polling because it’s impossible to get perfect and often pollsters don’t adjust for every single demographic. One huge example is that many didn’t adjust for education levels in 2016 and this is also how many Trump voters were missed. That said, any decent poll will explain any weighting that’s been done in the methodology.
What other metrics are worth paying attention to?
Other metrics, such as Trump’s approval rating are also indicative of how the race is going. Another important one is how the candidates are doing in terms of raising money and spending it wisely, OpenSecrets tracks this information. Finally, there’s historian Allan Lichtman, who has successful predicted presidential elections since Reagan and then used his model to retroactively predict election over the past 120 years. He’s predicted a Biden win, so let’s hope that this isn’t the year that his model fails.
What is interesting about the polls now?
Neither party seemed to get a traditional post-convention bounce in the polls, which was widely expected. Beyond that, Biden’s lead in the national polls and also in many of the swing states has been significant for months — ranging from almost 10 points at the top to just under 5 and is not at 7. Individual polls don’t tell us a whole lot but long-term trends among many polls tells us that Biden’s lead is solid, for now. But there’s still a lot of time between now and November 3, including three presidential debates, one VP debate and perhaps an October surprise or two.
This article was published in Spanish on esglobal.