Examining polls after the fact | In Focus

Were the polls accurate? By now, we likely know.

Rich Elfers, “In Focus”

Rich Elfers, “In Focus”

Last week’s cartoon cover of The Week magazine had a picture of the Democratic donkey waking up after having nightmares of headlines stating: “Polls Wrong Again!” and “Trump Wins!” with a ghoulish Trump jack-O’-lantern sitting on the nightstand.

Polls and predictions exist because voters want to glimpse into the future to see what will happen. They don’t like to be taken by surprise, unless it’s an outcome they were actually hoping for. By the time you read this column, the future will have become the present.

Back in 2016, the election polls were not wrong. Hilary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.9 million while Donald Trump barely won the Electoral College by a few thousand votes in swing states. The election polls were within the 3 percent margin-of-error factor. In actuality, the 2016 election was a virtual tie.

Emotions in the 2020 election were higher than they were in 2016. Americans are deeply divided. Here’s what some of the polls and pundits predicted. Judge for yourself how accurate they turned out to be:

On Oct. 22nd, The New York Times ran the findings of a survey by the University of Minnesota-CPS Poll. The title of the article was “The Relentless Shrinking of Trump’s Base”.

In this poll, Trump’s white non-college educated base actually shrank since 2016. In 2016, 71 percent of older voters in this group voted for Trump. In 2020, that demographic decreased to 39 percent of voters. In some cases that was due to death or incapacitation; in others it was caused by disappointment in Trump’s character. In yet other cases it was due to defection to a candidate less objectionable than Hilary Clinton.

The number of minority voters grew in that same period from 11 percent to 27 percent, while the white college-educated voters grew from 17 percent to 34 percent. (Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic struck hardest for those over 55, including those who voted for Trump.) Trump’s strategy between 2016 and 2020 was to widen that non-college educated base and to largely ignore the minority and college-educated voters. He was partially successful.

But there were 5 million fewer voters in Trump’s base than there were in 2016, while the number of minority and white college-educated voters increased by 13 million in that same period. The increased number of registered voters in the swing states strongly favored Biden over Trump.

Trump’s denigration of mail-in ballots also meant he caused many conservative voters to wait until election day to cast their ballots in person, also a high-risk tactic contrasted with Democrats who urged voters to vote by mail and to vote early.

Pollster 538’s predictions as of Oct. 26th, which create an average of all the polls, gave Biden a 95 percent chance of winning versus a 5 percent chance for Trump. Biden was predicted to get 350 electoral votes to Trump’s 188. The House of Representatives was predicted to stay in Democratic control, with 243 votes, while predicting a 75 percent chance of Democrats gaining control of the Senate.

Breitbart released a poll on Oct. 4th from the Sunday Express/Democracy Institute Poll. It showed Trump ahead 46 percent to 45 percent for Biden. There was a statistical error rate of 2.5 percent, meaning the race was a dead heat.

Of the polls for the national popular vote, RealClearPolitics, which also averages polls, but did not count the Sunday Express/Democracy Institute Poll, gave Biden a 7.6 percent national popular vote lead.

If you listened to 700 Club televangelist Pat Robertson, you heard him say that God told him that Trump would win.

American University history professor Alan Lichtman’s prediction gave Biden the win, based on 13 historical factors. His predictions have been correct 100 percent of the time since the 1984 election. The only caveats he made were not knowing the effects of voter suppression by Trump and the Republicans, and Russian interference.

You are reading this column either on the day of the election or shortly afterward. You can judge for yourselves which polls/predictions were correct and which of them fell short. According to Pollster 538, there was a 1 in 100 chance that no one got the required 270 electoral votes in which case the election would be decided by the House of Representatives. There was a 5 in 100 chance there would be a recount, likely throwing the issue into the hands of the Supreme Court, now 6-3 conservative.

Did the Democrats’ worst nightmares come true? Did Trump’s high risk strategy pay off for him again, if not with the Electoral College, then in the Supreme Court? Are the results still uncertain? If they are, then add it to the ever lengthening list of uncertainties of 2020.


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Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.
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