Understanding What Political Polls Actually Mean Ahead of the Election

Understanding What Political Polls Actually Mean Ahead of the Election

Voters in North Carolina are being bombarded with political campaign ads. At any given time, we could see presidential campaign ads, Senate campaign ads, gubernatorial campaign ads, or state legislature campaign ads. Something else we hear about a lot? Understanding political polls.

Most of that discussion centers around which candidate leads and by how much. Readers and viewers then receive constant analysis and speculation regarding what could happen the first Tuesday in November.

In 2016, Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton was expected to win (as seen in political polls) in the days leading up to the election. Well, that certainly didn’t happen, and President Donald Trump was inaugurated Jan. 20, 2017. We’ll have more on this one later.

For now, let’s examine all the noise surrounding political polls. We’re going to look at what goes into a poll, and how news outlets report polls to us. And then we’ll provide you with resources to use to make sure you get the best information available on understanding political polls.

This explainer joins our Refresh the Press series, which educates readers about the effects of 21st-century journalism on their everyday lives.

What goes into a political poll?

Political polls are the same as scientific polls, according to Dr. David Holian, an associate professor of political science at UNC – Greensboro. They provide a general understanding on a topic, based on the opinions of a sample (portion) of the population. Holian said the sample size for polls is usually between 1,200 and 1,500 people.

Voters need to remember two things when looking at poll numbers.

The first: polls are about the present, not the future.

“The important thing for people to know is these [polls] are snapshots of what is happening now, rather than a forecast of what is going to happen,” Holian said. “They’re a snapshot in time; they capture the opinion right now.”

The second: each political poll has a degree of uncertainty.

Holian said pollsters distribute the number they are most certain about, and that there is a margin of error on either side of that. There usually is a 5% chance the actual number lies outside the margin. In other words, owing to the sample and the nature of research, no political poll is infallible.

How News Organizations Report Polls

Most news outlets do one of two things when putting together their political polls, said professor Ferrel Guillory: they either hire a pollster, or they work with an academic institution. Guillory is the director of the Program for Public Life at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism.

The media outlet’s size and reach also play a role in how poll results are presented to its readers and viewers. Guillory said outlets at the state and local levels tend to report poll results as they appear, without getting behind the numbers for greater context. He also said national outlets use polls to guide day-to-day and week-to-week campaign coverage, and to look ahead at how the electoral college could shape up.

There is, however, another way to report polls. Guillory pointed to coverage by outlets like The New York Times and The Atlantic, but also from analytics site FiveThirtyEight. All three organizations use poll data to tell the story of America during an election.

“The really substantive use of polls comes in journalism that helps Americans to understand America,” Guillory said. Remember Holian’s “snapshot” comment? That view of political polls lends itself to Guillory’s description also. We understand our peers’ opinions and intentions at one point in time, and so we might better understand our country.

But one drawback of political polls’ saturation of the election news cycle is over-reporting by news outlets.

Guillory said tight political races essentially can be tied, because of polls’ margin of error and the pollsters’ uncertainty surrounding numbers. But news outlets’ desire to report the polls can obscure that reality.

“I saw a story yesterday that said Latinos in North Carolina represent 4% of the electorate and they may decide the election in North Carolina,” Guillory said. “Then I saw another story that said white evangelical Christians might decide the election. When elections have been as close as they have been [in North Carolina], any group can be a deciding factor.”

Guillory’s point is simple: a single segment of North Carolina’s diverse population likely won’t tip the scales toward one candidate or the other in a nationwide general election. Even if a news story about a polls says it will.

So vote, just to be safe.

What happened with understanding political polls in 2016?

Holian said that national pollsters didn’t get it wrong in 2016. He pointed out Clinton led by roughly three points coming down the wire, and that she won the national popular vote by roughly two and a half points.

The issue came at the state level. Holian said state pollsters didn’t place the proper weight on levels of education. He specifically mentioned non-college educated voters, which make up 40% of registered voters, and he pointed out that Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have many voters in that group. Trump won those three states in 2016.

Now, was this addressed coming into the 2020 presidential election? The answer, Holian said, is yes.

“Now for example, if I do a poll, and I see 33% are whites without a college education, I will weight the responses differently,” he said. “So, I’ll multiply their responses to ensure my sample matches the demographic characteristics of the entire population.

“Pollsters won’t be making that mistake this time around.”

FiveThirtyEight on Tuesday published a story breaking down what happened four years ago, how organizations changed their approach to polling and the reservations they have coming down the stretch in 2020.

One problem concerning pollsters with this year’s election is the same problem many voters likely will have: COVID-19 impacts. “With the coronavirus, there may be voters who tell pollsters that they’re voting but then their area experiences a spike in cases around Election Day, and they no longer feel safe going to the polls,” said Doug Schwartz, poll director at Quinnipiac University.

Where can you find reliable news for understanding political polls?

Holian and Guillory recommended FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics to get accurate information from political polls. Both websites offer detailed aggregations of polls across a wide variety of races.

Guillory also recommended voters look at Pew Research Center. The organization’s website posts pieces explaining how voters can read polls and the challenges pollsters face in researching American opinion polls.

Holian said poll reporting from the major national news organizations can be trusted. “FOX News is a top-notch polling organization,” he said.

How Understanding Polls Affects NC Voters

Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels.

It is important this year for voters in North Carolina to know what’s going on before casting their ballot (especially given the positive COVID-19 test and adultery scandal between our two Senate candidates).

Your education should go beyond candidates’ views on the issues. Make sure you know what reporters and analysts are telling you through polls. Understanding political polls, knowing how to process their information in context, can better inform your decision when voting.

Election Day is getting closer and closer, and North Carolina News Daily has you covered. Click over to our Law section for a bird’s-eye view of North Carolina politics.