How to read the polls

We are already being inundated with opinion polls on all the election races going on and this blizzard will likely intensfty as we get closer to November. In order to help us keep a grip on reality, Harry Enten provides a list of things to bear in mind confronted by poll numbers. I have given just the headers but Enten’s post explains the rationale for each.

  1. Beware of polls tagged “bombshells” or “stunners.”
  2. Instead, take an average.
  3. Look for polls that use live interviewers; they have a better track record.
  4. Know the polling firm – some are waaay better than others.
  5. Beware the unskewers.
  6. Check what the pollster said previously. Some pollsters’ results lean more towards one party or the other.
  7. Consider the motives of the media reporting on the polls. Check to see if the poll includes third-party candidates.
  8. Check to see if the poll includes third-party candidates.
  9. Margin of error and sample size matter less than who’s in the sample, though be wary if the sample size is smaller than 400.
  10. Don’t get crazy about the Electoral College.
  11. Still, aggregating the state polls usually provides a better idea of who is going to win than the national polls..
  12. If the polls shift after the debates … wait. Short-term shifts in polls often reverse themselves.
  13. Even at the end of the campaign, the polls probably won’t perfectly predict the results.

    The explanations for each are quite illuminating.


    1. KG says

      Marcus Ranum@0,
      Quite. I mean, how could it be of any use to have some idea what’s likely to happen? All sensible people ignore the forecasts of future climate change, don’t they?

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