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’Don’t Trust the Polls’; Why Americans Have Hesitations in 2020

Updated: Oct 31


By: Fraser Passmore


The 2020 United States general election has been loud, to say the least, and we are still one week away from the conclusion of this spectacle. Amongst all the twists and turns, debate shouting, false claims, and nomination hearings, there has been one consistency throughout. Polls. Polling data for this election has been anything but exciting. On FiveThirtyEight’s 2020 forecast, Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden has been ahead of President Donald Trump anywhere between 5% and 8% and has been given about an 88% chance of victory over his Republican challenger. In any other election year, these numbers would be a clear sign of victory, but this year is different.


Everyone knows the upset of the 2016 general election. Almost every pollster and select media outlets were convinced Hillary Clinton had an easy win ahead of her, yet here we are today with President Trump. This upset victory has led to a wave of distrust of pollsters and unwarranted polling. However, to put it bluntly, the 2016 polling data was not wrong.


The data and polls in the final days of the 2016 campaign were as accurate as previous elections. Trump won within an average margin of error in much-needed swing states, and his chances were not impossible, just unlikely. Now there are sources that suggest polling data was collected poorly in certain areas, especially in the “Democrat Safe” states; Rust Belt, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania giving more attention to educated, white voters. But a regional and demographic error should not be used as a representation of the bigger picture. Clinton won the overall popular vote over Trump by 2.1 points, and as a CBC article from shortly after the 2016 election states, it was not that the national polling was wrong, rather, it was the individual swing state polling that was.


The average person does not typically seek out polling data, that is what the media is for, and here lies where the seed of distrust was planted. American media outlets put too much reliance on polling data to back up their stances, especially in a very media biased climate. It is almost common knowledge now to classify CNN as a left-leaning media source, favoring the Democrats. So naturally, during 2016, CNN heavily favored Clinton to win the presidency and often showed the best polling to back their claims. Shortly after the 2016 results, CNN was quick to point their finger at pollsters, especially biased pollsters. Other outlets talk of an “overreliance” on polling data, as if the data presented was supposed to result in the same outcome. There are also various theories about what really happened in 2016, one being coined the “shy Trumper” hypothesis. This “theory” concludes that when Trump supporters were asked who they were voting for, they either lied or just avoided such questions. This theory could be true, and it is likely there were cases of it, but if “Trumpers” were avoiding public and social polling, then online polls would have seen an increase or at least a notable difference.


Regardless of what happened in 2016, the media damaged the reputation of polling organizations by giving the public false expectations. Now fast forward to 2020, and people are expecting yet another upset, despite many polls suggesting a strong Democrat victory.

How do we navigate the data this time? Well to start off, Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton. Now I do not make this a debate on who is the better candidate, but it needs to be mentioned that Clinton had some very heavy baggage that weighed her down. Joe Biden is in a much stronger position than his Democrat predecessor ever was. Nationally today, Biden has about an 8% lead in the popular vote over Trump. The story is similar amongst state polling, an 8% gap in Michigan and Minnesota, 7% in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and even closer numbers in states that are not traditionally swing states such as Georgia and Texas. I am not stating that Donald Trump cannot win again based on these numbers. It would be hypocritical of me to do so after critiquing the media for doing the same four years ago. The President currently stands at around a 13% chance of re-election which is not impossible. What needs to be acknowledged instead is the margins. If Biden were to theoretically lose support in the Rust Belt states using the standard margin of error, he would still carry them with 3-4% to spare. It is irresponsible to ignore an unpopular outcome, but the polls are almost always correct, even if it is in favor of the opponent.


References:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/22/learning/wrong-or-imprecise-understanding-the-polls-in-the-2016-and-2020-elections.html

https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-polls-are-all-right/

https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/meet-the-press/why-biden-s-poll-lead-different-hillary-clinton-s-n1243837

https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/grenier-uspolls-trust-1.5765695

https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/why-2016-election-polls-missed-their-mark/

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/25/pollsters-media-called-election-wrong-do-better

https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2020/09/24/how-to-win-2020-presidential-debate-trump-vs-biden-cillizza-the-point.cnn (Picture)


*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.

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