Q&A: A Closer Look At Polling Issues That May Be Hard To Fix

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Polls prior to the Nov. 3 election found wide leads for Joe Biden in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that ended up being very close on election night. [chrisdorney / Shutterstock]
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Analysis of this year’s presidential election started even before Joe Biden was announced as president-elect and while election officials in many states hurried toward a final count. A lot of early attention has been on polling and why opinion polls in here in Ohio, as well as Wisconsin and Florida overestimated support for Biden. All this came after 2016, when many polls underestimated support for Donald Trump. All Things Considered Host Tony Ganzer spoke with ideastream’s Matt Richmond about what happened with the polls this time around.

Do we know much about what happened this year?

There won’t be a good answer until exit polls are finalized and there are really close looks at who the voters were, who actually showed up at the polls.

After 2016, there was a report by the American Association for Public Opinion Research and the top recommendation they came up with is that pollsters need to start adding weight to voters without a college education, that those voters don’t respond to surveys that often and that tends to be where you would pick up a lot more Trump supporters.

I spoke with Charles Franklin, who runs the Marquette Law School poll. They know Wisconsin really well, and he said that they’ve always been doing that and their poll was still off by four points. He thinks that there was a different problem this year.

“That some Trump supporters may be systematically declining to do the survey, in a way that Republican voters prior to Trump did not decline to do the survey,” Franklin said. “I think the president’s rhetoric about fake polls, polls that he doesn’t like, for that matter the broader topic of 'fake news,' has provided four years of reinforcement for the notion that if you’re a Trump supporter, perhaps you don’t want to do the polling.”

Is it fair to say then that Franklin thinks it’s less a problem with methodology and more about maybe the political climate and President Trump as a candidate, even?

I think that’s really his best guess right now. Here he is talking about how it’s just part of a deeper cultural change that has a lot to do with President Trump: “There was a time when people were anxious to take part in polls because they wanted to part of that national conversation. But if that’s changed to an extent in the last few years, then we have more of a problem because some people simply don’t want to participate in that.”

Is there any hope for more accurate polls, or do we just have to wait for an election to gauge support for a candidate?

It could be an issue that goes away when Donald Trump is no longer running. They found in 2018 there weren’t those problems with the polls for governor’s races and Congress.

So that 2017 report the Public Opinion Research Association did, one recommendation they had was to get better polls. One thing you could do would be to pool resources among polling agencies, because each individual poll, not a lot of money goes into it.

Claire Durand, a sociology professor at the University of Montreal, would love to get her hands on data from pollsters. Pollsters will do tests where they try out different methods for reaching people. She doesn’t think that there’s much chance that she and people like her will get their hands on that data.

“I think these pollsters will share only with researchers and they will share with researchers only if researchers are clearly, absolutely not associated with any pollster and with any political party,” Durand said.

Charles Franklin, from Marquette Law School’s poll, says we might have to live with problems like this because of the political climate in the country, because the alternative would be just a dramatic shrinking of the industry. And then all you have left are political party polls or special interest polls.

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