Why the polls were off again in 2020

The margins missed by as much as 7-points in some Midwest states
Posted at 7:09 PM, Nov 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-13 19:09:08-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Similar to 2016, the polls appear to be off a bit in the 2020 election. Mike Traugott, a political science professor with University of Michigan, thinks that has to do with a few things.

“Kind of like a recipe, you have to get the proportions of the ingredients right,” said Traugott. “Estimating the outcome of an election is a very difficult task from a scientific perspective.”

The discrepancies were especially stark in the Midwest. While Michigan’s numbers were relatively in-line with major polling indices, other midwestern states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa were each off by 7-points in favor of president-elect Joe Biden.

Other Republican stronghold states like Indiana and Montana, had a single-digit lead for the president in the weeks leading up to the election. He ended up taking the states in a landslide. Traugott says pollsters may have an issue with diversity.

“Turns out they have the same problem,” he said, “that is probably too many Democrats in their sample or in their likely voter models.”

Traugott added that often times, rural voters without college degrees, who tend to lean more Republican, aren’t always apt to answer calls, as most major polls are still conducted over the phone.

“It could be that Republicans have become less willing to be interviewed,” said Traugott, “and that is one reason for their underrepresentation in the samples.”

Despite a small difference between the pre-elections polls and current margins (which still aren’t wholly established as votes are still being counted), Traugott says it’s important not to lose faith in polling, especially since their use extends beyond the horse race polls during a presidential election year.

“Throwing the baby out with the bath water, I think, would be a terrible mistake from a democratic perspective,” he said. “Especially in the period between elections because the measurement of public attitudes and beliefs and policy preferences is important for communicating to their elected representatives about what their preferences are.”

FiveThirtyEight, EPIC-MRA and Gallup all declined to be interviewed for this story.