Public opinion pollsters got a shiner in the 2016 election with off-base predictions about presidential and congressional elections. That may have signaled the need for major changes in technique, but that hasn’t happened, according to a story in The New York Times.
However, one unsuspecting change might right the ship. Pollsters are literally giving more weight in surveys to the level of education of respondents. Weighting respondents by education is far from easy. Candidates don’t perfectly align along educational attainment. In 2016, because of the profile of the presidential candidates, educational levels mattered. That may not be so in future elections.
For pollsters who think big methodological changes are unnecessary, Virginia may prove them right. Hillary Clinton polled five or six points ahead of Donald Trump in the 2016 election. She eventually carried Virginia by 5.3 percent. Polling in the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election held on Tuesday showed Democrat Ralph Northam leading his GOP counterpart Ed Gillespie by as few as 3 percentage points. With more than 80 percent of votes tallied, Northam posted nearly a 7 percent lead.
Political polling is not a perfected science. Conscientious pollsters continuously look for factors that can skew results, such as the sea-shift from landline phones to cell phones, and adjust to account for that shift. If you didn’t include cell phones in a sample, you would under-represent young voters and minorities and people who work more than one job.
Trump’s largely unexpected victory in 2016 confounded many pollsters and led to serious questioning of polling techniques. Did pollsters conduct late surveys to capture voters who decided at the last minute? How did pollsters compensate for respondents who intended to vote for Trump, but didn’t want to say so publicly? Did surveys fully take into account more remote areas, which went strongly in Trump’s direction? And how do you accurately predict turnout, not just overall, but by key constituencies that can determine whether one candidate wins or loses?
Challenges to getting accurate polling results may be intensifying as the electorate becomes more polarized, which is a hard factor to measure. While educational levels may be an obvious factor to include, figuring out how – and whether – it is a reliable indicator of voting behavior isn’t so obvious.
Politicians and news media put more stock in public opinion polling than voters. They are the ones that pay for it and, in varying degrees, expect polling results to reflect reality. Voters have no such expectations or fealty to polling results. If anything, polling results can incite small groups of voters to go to the polls or stay home, to vote one way or the other.
When all is said and done, polls don’t matter. Elections matter. Hillary Clinton led in the polls, but lost the election. Donald Trump sleeps in the White House. Clinton sleeps in hotels on her book tour explaining how she lost an election she thought she would win.
History may show 2016 is an aberration in polling perfection. Pre-election polls proved out in the gubernatorial elections today in New Jersey and Virginia. No curve balls, even though Gillespie in Virginia did his best to imitate the political bombast of Trump.
While the gubernatorial election outcome may give pause to Republicans standing for re-election in 2018, the predictability of public opinion polls in this cycle may reassure the buyers of political polling to keep investing.