Political Polls At A Glance

I’m a political junkie and spend a lot of my time looking at political information including polls. Some of the polling I’m privy to includes information well beyond what you get on TV, radio or in the newspaper. I realize that few Americans have the time or information I do but this is the time of year people want to know what races look like. Today I’d like to discuss how to evaluate polls without spending half your day in the process. Let’s explore.

What most people want to know is: Who is going to win. The reality is that often the polls tell you they don’t know. To me the biggest thing to pay attention to is the margin of error. If a poll has a margin of error of 5% and one candidate is ahead by 3% the poll is telling you that the race is too close to call.

The race that most Americans are most interested in is the one for the presidency. The polls they see the most are largely irrelevant. They are nationwide polling. They are basically meaningless beauty contests. There are 57 elections, not a single election so who is winning nationally really means next to nothing. With the exception of Maine and Nebraska all the states and DC award their electors to the statewide (or districtwide in the case of DC) winner. Only a handful of states are in doubt in any election cycle (about are 11 in 2020). My home state of North Carolina is one of them this time around. If you want to predict the Electoral College outcome you need to know who will win each of them.

Polls are a snapshot in time taken a few days before publication and can never tell you who will win on Election Day. That being said they are still very useful. The first thing to look at is how recent the poll is. Seldom does everything change overnight.

In addition it is important to consider whether or not a significant event has transpired recently and was it before or after the poll. If a scandal became public before the poll was taken you have to ask if the results are much different and that will tell you if the scandal had any bearing on voters’ decisions. Especially in these polarized time it is amazing what candidates can get away with that would have been electorally fatal a few years ago.

Another factor to look at is whether candidates are moving up or down. That is especially true if a slope can be detected. If your candidate is continually losing ground it is reasonable to assume they will get weaker as we get closer to Election Day.

Last but certainly not least is the methodology. The portion of methodology usually revealed in the readily available version of polls is who was polled. The big thing to look for is registered voters vs. likely voters. Especially in mid-term elections a significant portion of registered voters don’t actually end up casting ballots. They effectively render their opinion meaningless.

Before I anger all the political science instructors out there let me state that this was a short “lesson” on a much more complex subject but I hope it makes the few minutes more I’m asking you to invest looking at a poll more beneficial. The frustrating part is that very often the polls are telling you they can’t definitively answer the question you asked.

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