A woman stands before a group of people with a pen and clipboard, writing down their opinions
Illustration by Maya Winshell

Polling presents a complex image of elections

Because college students represent an important voting demographic, those who are watching the presidential race may look to polls to forecast the voting behaviors of the electorate. 

As the results of the 2016 general election rolled in, the consensus was that the national polls were wrong. Many reputable polling sources had Hillary Clinton ahead in battleground states that she went on to lose like Wisconsin and Michigan, and The New York Times called it “the biggest polling miss in a presidential election in decades.”

As of the evening of Oct. 28, FiveThirtyEight’s 2020 projection algorithm has Biden winning the election in 88 out of 100 scenarios, but what real role do polls and forecasts play in the general election? According to Associate Professor of Political Science Ben Gaskins, polls are tools used by the media, researchers and political campaigns. 

“It helps understand what is working and what isn’t, where the candidates stand, etc.,” Gaskins said via email. 

Gaskins believes that the media tends to get bogged down in “horse race” coverage. Rather than reporting on policies and political platforms, the media focuses on how candidates are faring. This can have negative implications; citizens might look to who is “winning” or what is popular to help make up their minds on who to vote for. However, it is  generally beneficial to know where the average citizen stands on issues and candidates, and polling is the best way to understand that. 

Due to an abundance of polling sources during the election cycle, it can be difficult to know which polls are reputable and which ones an electorate should pay attention to. Gaskins said that while no poll is infallible, some are better than others and it is important to look at the credibility of the sources. 

“It is important to look at polling averages to understand what people think, as any single poll may be an outlier or give a wrong impression due to sampling problems, question-wording issues, and more,” Gaskins said. “So while the polls should be trusted overall, they must be taken with care and context.”

According to Gaskins, a poll should represent the population as much as possible, focus on randomized samples and avoid bias. 

“The poll should report basic information about how the data was gathered, the margin of error, the dates in the field, the question wording, and sampling procedure (i.e. did they contact cell phones, is it a live-caller poll, is part of it done online),” Gaskins said. “Large pollsters with a long track record should be trusted more than newer ones from organizations that are less well-known. Major media outlets generally perform better with their polls, i.e. CBS News, Fox News, NY Times/Siena. 538 has a pollster rating system that allows observers to see which polling outlets do better than others, and whether they have a partisan bias.”

For example, FiveThirtyEight’s pollster ratings show that both SurveyMonkey and TCJ Research show heavy mean-reverted bias.

Gaskins believes that Lewis & Clark students should take polling into account when evaluating the state of the election, but not treat it as conclusive. 

“LC students should care about polls because they are the best way to know what people across the country (and world) think,” Gaskins said. “They help us break out of our social and political bubbles to understand what other groups and areas think about politics and policies. In general, the 2020 polls are predicting a Biden win, a Democratic takeover for the Senate, and an expanded Democratic lead in the House. But these polls should not lead to complacency, as it depends on turnout. So they should be used for information purposes, but are not determinative of anything.”

Given the situation of the last general election, polls are being looked at more critically by the general public. But according to Gaskins, we should know what polls actually aim to do and to what extent they can inform us about public opinion. 

“Polling gets a bad rap, and it’s important to know that most pollsters are doing good, hard work and generally do a pretty good job at predicting and understanding human behavior,” Gaskins said. “Quantifying public opinion is always a challenge, but polls are better than the alternatives. So use polls as one element of political activity, look at polling averages, and don’t freak out (or celebrate) if a poll is particularly good or bad for your side. Don’t ignore the polls, but don’t obsess about them either. Polls are a vital part of democracy, and play an important role in telling policymakers what people think.”

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