Political polling is a zombie: It walks amongst us, trying to eat our brains, and we should kill it.
Polls that attempt to show which candidate is ahead in a campaign or who is likely to win should be ignored. Polls get it right sometimes, but even when election polls are accurate, they produce no public benefit and may indeed harm our democratic system. So let’s drive a stake into political polling’s heart.
In 2016, poll after poll predicted that Hillary Clinton would easily become the 45th president. In fact, it was Donald Trump who won 30 states, 306 electoral votes, and the presidency. In swing state after swing state, the pollsters overestimated Clinton’s support and minimized Trump’s. The polls were off again in 2020. Even though Joe Biden won, as predicted, the polls vastly overestimated his support in all 18 states where the results were close.
Political polls are likely to be wrong for two big reasons. For polls to be accurate, they have to predict who will actually vote, and they have to get these people to respond to the poll. Pollsters can’t do either of these things well, and they’re getting worse at both.