Nate Silver Continues to Defend 2020 Polling: 'Weren’t Great. But That’s Pretty Normal.'

Posted: Nov 11, 2020 5:00 PM
Nate Silver Continues to Defend 2020 Polling: 'Weren’t Great. But That’s Pretty Normal.'

Source: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Nate Silver, the editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, continued to defend his site's and other institution's polling for the 2020 election despite many of the actual election results being in stark contrast to what the polls being released.

"The Polls Weren’t Great. But That’s Pretty Normal," was Silver's headline for a story on FiveThirtyEight published on Wednesday:

  1. On the one hand, I don’t entirely understand the polls-were-wrong storyline. This year was definitely a little weird, given that the vote share margins were often fairly far off from the polls (including in some high-profile examples such as Wisconsin and Florida). But at the same time, a high percentage of states (likely 48 out of 50) were “called” correctly, as was the overall Electoral College and popular vote winner (Biden). And that’s usually how polls are judged: Did they identify the right winner?
  2. On the other hand, evaluating how close the polls came to the actual vote share margins is a better way to judge polls, so I’m glad that people are doing that.
  3. And yet, the margins by which the polls missed — underestimating President Trump by what will likely end up being 3 to 4 percentage points in national and swing state polls — is actually pretty normal by historical standards.


On that front, I’m afraid I have some bad news. If you want certainty about election outcomes, polls aren’t going to give you that — at least, not most of the time.

It’s not because the polls are bad. On the contrary, I’m amazed that polls are as good as they are. Given that response rates to polls are in the low single digits and that there are so many other things that can go wrong, from voters changing their minds after you poll them to guessing wrong about which voters will turn out — plus the unavoidable issue of sampling error — it’s astonishing that polls get within a couple of points the large majority of the time.

Not only were many polling numbers were off for the presidential election, as the RealClearPolitics polling average showed Biden ahead by almost double digits, but the Senate races proved to be more of a rebuke of how current polling is done.

Sen. Tom Tillis (R-NC) won reelection despite most polls showing challenger Cal Cunningham (D) being ahead.

The same goes for Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who won her reelection 51.1 percent against Sara Gideon's 42.2 percent. Virtually all polls had Gideon ahead of Collins.

It is understandable why Silver is defending polling, it's his bread and butter, but something needs to be said about the methods the polling institutions are implementing to get their results. Even the presidential race had Biden up to the point where it should have been a clear victory. Instead, we have the race coming down to a handful of states where the deciding votes coming down to a couple of thousands.

The Trafalgar Group, on the other hand, has shown polling can be pretty accurate. Just as they did with 2016, their polling was often one of the few who had Republicans up in their Senate races.

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