Political Polls: Dead or Alive?
Are political polls dead? In the world of campaigns, this is a question that comes back to haunt us every election cycle. our collective confidence in political voting.
Following the 2020 presidential elections, reactions to poll inaccuracies were no different. In one notable case, several major pollsters predicted Joe Biden would win the state of Wisconsin by 10 points, with an October ABC / Washington Post. survey predicting that Biden could even lead the state by a staggering 17 points. On the final score, Biden won Wisconsin by less than one point.
Similarly, at the US Senate level in 2020, polls suggested that Senator Susan Collins would lose her re-election bid by five points, on average. In the end, Collins secured re-election for a fifth term with a comfortable eight-point margin.
The mismatch between the polls and the election results once again prompted some experts, journalists, professionals, and viewers to write opening epitaphs for political polls in November 2020:
“It was a terrible night for the polls. They were wrong, almost everyone, almost everywhere. Save yourself time and stop watching them so closely in the elections. “-Axios, November 2020
“As insulting as pollsters are asked ‘why should it exist?’ Americans who feel they have been misled would want an answer.”Rolling Stone, November 2020
“The profession of political pollster is finished … It is devastating for my industry.” —Republican surveyor Frank Luntz to Axios, November 2020
These trends beg the question: Are political polls really disappearing?
Take political polls with a grain of salt
Our team has written about ways to be a smart consumer of survey data on our blog. In recent years, we have also interviewed prominent voices in the Democratic polling world to talk about the inherent shortcomings of political polls. Additionally, we regularly partner with survey takers to help our clients design and run surveys when it makes sense for their goals.
Our biggest takeaway from the last two political polling cycles is that we need to change our approach to interpreting poll data and forming narratives based on the numbers. Here are a couple of tips for thinking about the future of political polls:
- Think of a survey as a snapshot of how a specific audience is feeling at a given moment, rather than as an inflexible prediction of a specific result. External events that cannot be controlled or anticipated, from campaign errors to natural disasters and global pandemics, can always affect the numbers. A single poll shouldn’t be a blanket life or death sentence for a campaign, it’s just a piece of information to consider.
- Use the data to inform your campaign strategy, but don’t rely solely on data from political polls to make decisions. Again, a good poll is a snapshot of how a cross-sectional sample feels about your campaign or issue at any given time, but that doesn’t mean there is no room for nuance. Let the voting numbers be a piece of the puzzle in defining your contact with voters and your messaging strategies.
- Analyze survey data in the context of historical results. Yes, it is possible for a red congressional district to turn blue. And yes, it is possible for Democrats to win statewide victories in a state like Georgia. That said, if a poll suggests a landslide for Democrats in a geography that has long been dominated by Republicans, approach that data with a healthy dose of skepticism. See the big picture when making decisions about campaign strategy and investments.
- Don’t neglect your direct contact strategy with voters. No matter what the polls say, make sure your campaign continues to prioritize talking to voters. As we learned from Wisconsin in 2016, voters will not reward candidates who are not present in their communities. Follow it.
- Hear from the pollsters on the voting limitations and keep that in mind when setting your goals for your own voting.
Our team is always happy to talk about the pros and cons of political polls and ways to get the most out of the data you collect (without doing too much of it). If you have additional questions, feel free to contact us directly.