Polling the Polls

Be careful. Be smart. Don't be dismissive.

Here’s the thing — the polls are not wrong. I know many people think that because the polls say things people don’t believe. But polling is not really that bad. Sure, there are bad pollsters, but polling averages do a pretty good job. Take 2016, the example that comes to mind for a lot of people who say polls are wrong.

In fact, Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote. The final polling average had her winning by 3%. She won by 2%. The polls were right. The problem is that we elect the President with an Electoral College, not a popular vote. The individual polling of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were far more instructive. But individual state polling is hard to do and more expensive.

As a general rule, if a poll has the candidates with a gap of 5% of more, those numbers tend to trickle down proportionally at the state level. When you get less than 5%, you need to go to individual state polling to really get an accurate reading of a presidential race.

Now, the methodology matters too. Let me give you the methodology of the Emerson College poll — a poll you will never hear my cite on my radio show because it is uniformly a crap poll. Behold:

Data was collected using both an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system of landlines only (n= 772) and an online panel provided by Amazon Turk (n= 478).

In other words, the pollster used a robotic system that called landline phones and then used an online panel provided by Amazon Turk, a service of Amazon for people to do low wage digital work. That is a horrible method of polling. There were no live operators and no cell phones. Compare Emerson to the ABC News/Washington Post poll:

This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by landline and cellular telephone Feb. 14-17, 2020, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,066 adults.

That is a good methodology. They used landline and cell phones. They polled randomly. They also did it in Spanish. That’s pretty comprehensive. Pew Research has out a note on bogus respondents in online polling. They found

that online polls conducted with widely-used opt-in sources contain small but measurable shares of bogus respondents (about 4% to 7%, depending on the source). Critically, these bogus respondents are not just answering at random, but rather they tend to select positive answer choices – introducing a small, systematic bias into estimates like presidential approval.

In other words, beware of pollsters using online groups to participate in polls.

Polling really is a combination of art and science. There are great pollsters out there. The media overly relies on polling to help shape news coverage, but it can be helpful. We can, for example, see the rise of Bloomberg in the polling. He has not yet been on the ballot, but we can tell his spending on ads is helping him. This, in turn, tells us that major ad-buying actually does boost name identification and helps.

But Bernie Sanders is now leading in the polls. Joe Biden has what can best be described as electile dysfunction. Check out the polling average:

The problem Mike Bloomberg is going to have, despite his rise, is the Democrat primaries are all proportional. As long as Bernie Sanders keeps it close, he will keep picking up delegates. Thanks to DNC rules changes from 2016 made at Sanders’ insistence, there are no more super-delegates to stop him. Bernie has a head start and a polling advantage.

On top of that, the other candidates are all fighting over who is best to stop him. They resent like hell Bloomberg trying to buy the race. As a result, they will all have to fight Bloomberg on stage tonight, yet again giving Bernie a pass. I would expect to see Warren go hardest against Bloomberg, both for his history of sexist comments and arguably racist policies, and the fact it is clear to her (though not public) that she has no shot. She can go after Bloomberg to protect Bernie and the leftwing base.

Bloomberg is not used to being questioned. We will see if he can handle himself on stage tonight with everyone firing in his direction.

In the meantime, don’t dismiss the polls. Just know what you’re getting and be sure to check the methodology. Also, for all the horror stories about Trump losing to everyone, go check out the swing states. In Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, Florida, North Carolina, and beyond, President Trump actually does far better than the national press, obsessed with national polls, would have you believe.