WASHINGTON — Election Day is less than one week away and if things go according to most national polls, at this point Former Vice President Joe Biden would be our next President. However, if you paid attention to the polls going into the 2016 Presidential Election you know not to count any chickens (or lack thereof) before they hatch.
Whether for entertainment or education, polls of voter opinions going into an election have been part of our nation’s voting process for many decades. Some polls involve extensive research studies, while others are just simple online surveys.
Ahead of the last election nearly all polls were pointing to a big win for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, but as we all know that was not the end result. Clinton did secure the popular vote, while not by as much of a gap as most polls indicated, but lost the election based upon our nation’s Electoral College.
That’s actually the first issue with election polls in general. They tally each “vote” equally, most closely reflecting what is known as the “popular vote,” but do not clearly reflect how the Electoral College, our country’s official body that elects the President, will unfold.
For more about the different between popular vote and the Electoral College and how it could impact this year’s election results, click here.
Currently, the majority of polls suggest that President Trump is lagging behind Joe Biden — but what are polls really worth if they can’t always get it right?
Well, of course they play no part in determining who actually becomes president, but they can offer insight into how our country is reacting to events leading up to the election, how different demographics are voting, and other important trends if interpreted accurately.
Stanford political scientist and professional pollster David Brady told Stanford News Service, “when you also talk about the Electoral College, what you are talking about is going into the battleground states and to aggregate results that way. I think when it comes to the Electoral College, the best thing to look at is individual state polls and the states that went for Trump in 2016 – Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – which essentially gave him the Electoral College win.”
In other words, pay closer attention to poll results in swing states.
Another issue with poll accuracy relates to voter turnout. Some people have intentions of voting one way, but never do. Others will engage in online polls but aren’t actually registered to vote for any number of reasons, like age or citizenship. Professional polls do a better job accounting for these inaccuracies, but aren’t foolproof.
According to Pew Research, the industry as a whole has become less accurate than previously believed. Their foundings state, “the barriers to entry in the polling field have disappeared.”
These days, basically anyone with a computer can create a poll — for entertainment rather than accuracy.
Professional pollsters have access to an array of tools which allow them to adjust results to account for outside factors, such as unregistered voters and sample size; but even with professional polls, as we saw in 2016, there can still be mistakes.
Pew Research estimates that the average margin of error in an opinion poll is closer to as many as 6 percentage points, not the 3 points often implied.
So, while polls can help gauge national trends and provide insight, they are by no means crystal balls into election results.