What Scares Pollsters This Halloween

Will the Curse of 2016 mean another surprise win for Donald Trump?

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Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Intramural Fields at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. November 2, 2016. (photo: Gage Skidmore)

The Curse of 2016

By every usual metric, we are being told by respected members of press on an hourly basis, former Vice President Joe Biden is right on-track to win the election in two-weeks time.

Joe Biden is up in the polls- way up, according to some polling authorities. Biden’s commanding lead over Trump has climbed well into the double-digits, if the rosiest Biden polling is reflective of who actually votes between now and Election Day.

The Biden campaign, and the Democratic Party- thanks in part to a tsunami of donations to Black Lives Matter-affiliated organizations and Act Blue, which have been channeled towards electing Joe Biden and other Democratic candidates- is sitting on a massive mountain of cash.

Having finally caught the Trump fundraising machine, Democrats and Democratic analysts are feeling more confident than ever. There are rumors of a coming blue wave, one that will sweep all Republicans before it and install large Democratic Party majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

And, at the conclusion of voting on Election Day, we are told, Joe Biden will sit proudly atop the dream he has been chasing since long before his failed runs for the Oval Office in 1988, 2008, and 2015.

In spite of all this good news, pollsters are worried. After 2016, they have every reason to be.

It is the “known unknowns”, among other concerns.

“There are more known unknowns than we’ve ever had at any point. The instruments we have to gauge this race, the polling, our predictive models…the problem is all those tools are built around quote-unquote normal elections. And this is anything but a normal election.” — Tom Bonier, CEO of Target Smart

Bonier is hardly alone. The known-unknowns of this election are keeping plenty of pollsters up at night.

“This is a perennial difficulty for pollsters and survey researchers, which the pandemic is making even thornier,” according to Kabir Khanna of CBS News.

Doug Schwartz of Quinnipiac agrees: “With the coronavirus, there may be voters who tell pollsters that they’re voting but then their area experiences a spike in cases around Election Day, and they no longer feel safe going to the polls.”

“I don’t know anyone in my Democratic pollster world who is sitting 100 percent comfortably or anything like that. Biden seems in better shape, but it is still a polarized country and a Trump win is still within the realm of possibility.” — Nick Gourevitch, Global Strategy Group

There are fears that the pandemic, and Donald Trump’s upset election in 2016, have merely revealed deep-seated problems in the polling industry rather than exacerbating them. There have been radical technological leaps over the past decade, leading to permanent changes in some social behaviors. Not least of these leaps has been the smart phone. Considering that random-number dialing land-lines had been the gold-standard in achieving a truly random polling sample for decades, this is a seismic shift to which the polling industry may not have yet adjusted.

They certainly hadn’t adjusted in 2016.

In 2020, the top three fears in the polling industry are: 1. Missing the “shy Trump voter”, 2. Unpredictable voter patterns due to COVID-19.

3. That the polling industry is fighting the last and final battle. That we are currently witnessing, not the aftermath of a one-off in 2016, but the death knell of the polling industry as we’ve known it.

Polling, it seems, might be defunct in the Trump age.

“I’m concerned that the industry may be fighting the last war,” lamented Public Opinion Director Lee Miringoff of Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.

Perhaps the advent of social media has made it too easy to name and shame people you don’t agree with, resulting in the shy Trump voter- one who won’t answer pollsters but does intend to vote. Perhaps the Trump era has wrought a permanent change by raising the cost of supporting Donald Trump. In elections past, people had no motivation to conceal their political preference from a total stranger claiming to be a pollster.

Because of these and other reasons, it isn’t only pollsters who are nervous about Joe Biden’s double-digit lead in the polls.

“The reality is that this race is far closer than some of the punditry we’re seeing on Twitter and on TV would suggest. In the key battleground states where this election will be decided, we remain neck and neck with Donald Trump.” — Jen O’Malley Dillon, Joe Biden’s campaign manager. October 17, 2020

What frightens nervous pollsters- and Democrats who still remember 2016- are the addendums which always seem to follow the statement that “Joe Biden is leading in the polls…”

Joe Biden is leading in the polls…but Donald Trump is leading in small donor donations. The Biden campaign has raised $203.7 million from small dollar donations; the Trump campaign, $252 million.

Joe Biden is leading in the polls…but Republicans are leading Democrats in new voter registrations, and by a wide margin, including in several critical swing states- Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

Joe Biden is leading in the polls…but more people watched Trump’s Town Hall than watched Joe Biden’s on Thursday, when accounting for online views as well as television viewership. In addition, there are indications Biden’s ratings may have been over-inflated by well-intentioned Tik-Tokers trying to deny Trump the “small win” of beating Biden in ratings. Though how inflated viewership numbers will help Joe Biden win actual votes on Election Day, is not clear.

These statements prove that the Curse of 2016 is still haunting Democrats. Will the ghost of the Hillary Clinton victory party that wasn’t come back to haunt Joe Biden’s? Is this the kind of horror movie sequel where our hero is making all the same old slow-motion mistakes, oblivious to the monster lurking just out of sight?

It all hinges on a question: Have pollsters learned the lessons of 2016?

“Since then, some of the most prolific state polls, including Monmouth University’s, have started to weight their samples by educational attainment to make sure they are not falling prey to survey bias based on voters with more degrees being more likely to answer their phones. Yet several firms have not, including Marist College, Mason-Dixon and EPIC-MRA, which conducts Michigan polls for the Detroit Free Press.” — “Biden leads Trump. So did Hilary Clinton. For Democrats, it’s a worrisome campaign deja vu.” Washington Post. Oct. 19, 2020.

Marist provides polling for NPR/PBS.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

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