Election Commentary

Five reasons why you can trust the polls this time & one reason to hedge your bets

Voters - some with masks, others without - show up to vote in Wisconsin's primary.
Voters - some with masks, others without - show up to vote in Wisconsin's primary. Photo: Screenshot/WISN 12 News

Anyone who lived through the 2016 presidential election will always carry the scars of overconfidence. Hillary Clinton seemed to have it all sewed up, at least if the polls were to be believed.

Problem was, they weren’t. Or at least not the way most people interpreted them.

Related: Voting deadlines, registration & what’s at stake for LGBTQ voters in 2020

It’s not surprising that as the presidential election nears the finish line, Democrats are leery of polls showing Joe Biden holding a comfortable lead in several battleground states and a close enough lead in other states to spark dreams of a blowout.

In mid-October 2016, The New York Times gave Clinton a 91% chance of winning. No wonder everyone is looking at the current polls with a jaded eye.

So is this time really different? Can you trust the polls? The answers are yes and yes, as long as you understand what polls are saying.

Here are five reasons to trust the polls this time out – and one reason to hedge your bets.

  1. The polls are better now. One of the biggest problems in 2016 is that the polls didn’t adequately sample the white voters with no college who turned out in force for Trump. This time around, the pollsters have fixed that issue. They have also gotten better at figuring out different ways to contact people so that the voters they reach better reflect the voting population overall.
  2. Joe Biden isn’t Hillary Clinton. Lots of people simply hated Clinton. More than half of voters had an unfavorable view of her. By contrast, a majority of voters have a favorable view of Biden. Moreover, since the idea of Trump winning seemed so distant, a lot of people sat out the election. The disdain and apathy for Clinton ran headlong into voter enthusiasm for Trump, which he was able to capitalize on in the three swing states that put him over the top.
  3. Biden’s lead is larger and more stable. In 2016 Clinton held a narrower lead in polls leading up to Election Day. Moreover, her lead had narrowed as time went on. Biden’s lead has been consistent and, in fact, has widened the closer we get to the election.
  4. The clock is running out. Biden’s lead in polls comes at a time when a record number of people have already voted. Trump has to come from behind in multiple states even as there are fewer voters to capture.
  5. Donald Trump is a terrible president. Well, duh. Trump has never had approval ratings above 50 percent. That’s not a recipe for winning an election. The president’s handling of the pandemic has only cemented people’s poor opinion of him.

All of that means that the polls showing Biden ahead by high single digits or even double digits nationally are probably pretty accurate predictors of the final result.  Right now, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site, which is well known for the rigor of its data analysis, puts Biden’s odds of winning at 88 percent.

Trump’s odds of 12% are a lot worse than where FiveThirtyEight put him in 2016, at around 30%. But a one-in-eight chance of winning isn’t the same as a zero chance. The odds are stacked against gamblers in Las Vegas, but people win jackpots.

As FiveThirtyEight puts it, Trump’s chances are slightly better than the chance of rain in downtown Los Angeles–and it does rain in downtown Los Angeles.

For Trump to win, a whole lot of things have to break his way. That’s very, very unlikely. But it’s not impossible. That chance is an argument for pretending that the polls are still wrong and getting out to vote just to be on the safe side.

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