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How to Deal with Anxiety Related to the Election, According to Nate Silver


Illustration for article titled How to Deal With Anxiety Related to the Election and Polling Numbers, According to Nate Silver

Photo: Never Settle Media (Shutterstock)

At this time four years ago, polls indicated that Hillary Clinton had a 12-point lead over Donald Trump, giving many a false sense of security regarding the election results. Election Night champagne was purchased, and the Javits Center was filled with balloons under a literal glass ceiling in anticipation of the election of the first woman president in American history. And we know how that turned out.

So now that most current polls have Joe Biden ahead of the incumbent president, it has the potential to increase the election-related anxiety many people have been experiencing for months (or, in some cases, since 2016). To help guide us through the next few weeks, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight has a few tips for handling poll-related anxiety.

Don’t assume Biden is going to win

Sure, Biden may be ahead in the polls at the moment, and Democrats appear to be doing well in early voting, but that doesn’t mean he has it in the bag. According to Silver, Trump currently has a 12 percent chance of winning the Electoral College. Even if that continues to decline over the next few weeks—say, to a 5% chance—that’s still something to take seriously in a race where the stakes are this high.

And if Biden does win, that doesn’t mean this is all over: the outcomes of the Congressional races—as well as those for statewide office—will have a major impact on our political future.

But also don’t completely discredit the polls

Strictly based on the difference between some of the polls leading up to the 2016 presidential election and the actual election results, it can be easy to simply write polls off as ineffective and pointless. But Silver cautions against this:

Polling is an imperfect instrument, more so in some years than others. However, 2016 — while far from a banner year from the polls — was not quite so bad as some critics assume. The national polls were pretty good, and Trump’s wins in the swing states were not that surprising based on the close margins in those states beforehand. Meanwhile, 2018, with the midterms, was one of the more accurate years for polling on record.

Try not to obsess over 2016

Clearly, this is easier said than done, but Silver says that some comparisons between 2016 and 2020 are misguided. For starters, we shouldn’t draw any absolute conclusions based on a sample size of one election (no matter how devastating the consequences have been). Also, even if the current polls are wrong, Silver says that it’s still possible for Biden to win the election. Plus, there’s no guarantee that polling errors would favor Trump the way they did four years ago.

Wait for polling averages

Sometimes, the results of a single poll can be pretty startling—which is why Silver recommends waiting for data on polling averages (coincidentally, like the ones provided by FiveThirtyEight):

But while there is such a thing as underreacting to news developments, the more common problem in the last days of a campaign is false positives, with partisans and the media trying to hype big swings in the polls when they actually show a fairly steady race.

In other words, if you see a poll with results you find upsetting, wait until you’re able to put them in context with other polls, rather than panicking right away.



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