With just a few days to go before Tuesday’s election, this is the time when both sides tend to start panicking about the outcome. While the Biden supporters may take comfort from polls showing that he has a comfortable lead, we all know that there are problems with polls. It is not that the polls were that wildly off in 2016. The national vote at the end was consistent with predictions of Hillary Clinton winning. But the state polls were close enough that relatively small deviations were enough to give Trump the electoral college win. We should always bear in mind that polls are always statistical and there is always a margin of error. Black swan events can occur and grey swan events have even greater chance of occurring. (I don’t know if there are grey swans but you get the idea behind the metaphor.)
So what about this time? While Biden seems to have a bigger lead than Clinton did, it may be that the polls may have even larger margins of uncertainty than before because of systematic factors. One reason is that it is getting harder and harder to get people to respond to polls. Two people who predicted that Trump would win in 2016 think that this will happen this year too because polls are undercounting the large number of what they call ‘shy’ Trump voters, people who are reluctant to tell pollsters that they are Trump supporters because of their feeling that the pollsters are likely Biden supporters. There is greater feeling of being judged negatively if you say that you are a Trump supporter than if you say you are a Biden supporter and so shy Trump voters will outnumber shy Biden voters.
To compensate for this, these two pollsters asked people not whom they were voting but for whom they thought their neighbors will vote for because this was more revealing of their true intent. They say that when asked this way, Biden’s lead shrinks considerably. They also use a different method of finding and asking people, not the telephone which they think is useless these days.
We have an Internet panel, but it’s a little different from most others. We recruit our respondents by sending them letters. We buy addresses from the post office—or from a vendor—draw randomly from addresses in the United States, invite people to participate in our studies and we pay them really well. We pay them join, and then $20 for a 30-minute interview. We have a relationship of trust with them.
I agree that telephone polling in the traditional way, as far as I can tell, is pretty close to death. You get extremely low response rates, and there is this issue: Who is still answering the phone?
We live in a country where people will lie to their accountant, they’ll lie to their doctor, they’ll lie to their priest. And we’re supposed to believe they shed all of that when they get on the telephone with a stranger and become Honest Abe? I cannot accept that.
Meanwhile, Michael Moore who also predicted that Trump would win in 2016 fears that it is going to happen again this year because he sees huge enthusiasm among Trump supporters that is not matched by the Biden supporters. This is not surprising because, after all, the Trump movement has a certain cult-like quality. The question is whether that enthusiasm gap translates into greater rates of voting by trump supporters. Another problem are the efforts to disenfranchise Democratic constituencies in Republican controlled states.
We have also seen signs that the lead that the Democrats built in early voting has started to get reduced due to a late surge in Republican efforts and that Republican voter registration drives have picked up steam and that their door-to-door canvassing and get-out-the-vote efforts have greatly exceeded that of Democrats who did not do this until recently because of pandemic fears.
In addition to the public polls, each campaign also conducts internal polling that they do not reveal (unless it is very good news for them) and that information is used by them to decided where they will campaign and spend ad money in the waning days of the campaign. So where candidates spend time and money in the final days is a good indicator of where they think things are close. That is not a perfect indicator as we saw in 2016 when Clinton did not visit Michigan thinking it was safe and ended up losing there.
So what is the bottom line? It is true that Biden has a greater lead nationally than Clinton did at this time (7.9% versus 2.3% with five days to go) and is likely to win a majority of the national votes and also seems to be on track to win the electoral college, at least as far as the polls go. William Saletan looks at all these factors and explains why he thinks Biden is still in good shape to win.
But I am not so sanguine. Against Biden’s polling leads we need to set the intangibles such as the undercounting of shy Trump voters, the enthusiasm gap in favor of Trump, the Democratic deficit in efforts to register voters and canvass door-to-door, and the structural impediments created in those Republican controlled states to disenfranchise potential Democratic voters. To my mind, this makes the election too close to call and I do not feel comfortable making a prediction. This does not matter since my election predictions tend to be terrible anyway.
So in one sense we have returned to an earlier time before polling became a significant factor in predicting election outcomes, in having to wait until the votes are actually counted to know the result.