“WRONG, WRONG, WRONG”: Can the American Polling Industry Survive Its 2020 Meltdown?

Around 6 p.m. ET Tuesday night, pollsters were getting edgy. It was about an hour before the first wave of polls would close around the country, and the numbers in Florida didn’t look right. “If the polls end being off in Florida, then they could very well be off in Georgia and North Carolina, which have similar demographics for voters,” a pollster told me at the time. “That’s fucking terrifying.” By around 8:45, the mood had turned even bleaker. Far from the Joe Biden landslide that sites like FiveThirtyEight had deemed likely, Trump seemed to be taking an early lead in states like Florida and Georgia. As my phone lit up with texts from observers on both sides of the aisle, the consensus was the same: Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight’s Twitter-famous poster boy, belonged in a gulag. 

By now, the worst-case scenario—a decisive win for Donald Trump—seems unlikely. At press time, Joe Biden’s path to 270 Electoral College votes looked freer and clearer than ever, even as hundreds of thousands of votes in several states were still being tallied. But for weeks, the headlines suggested a much different outcome. “Biden leads Trump by 57-40% among likely voters in Wisconsin,” an ABC News–Washington Post poll touted last week. “Why Biden could actually win Texas,” The Hill espoused days later. And Biden would surely take Florida by a “three to six percentage points among the state’s likely voters,” the New York Times reported, pointing to a flurry of polls. The same predictions were made about Lindsey Graham losing his Senate seat in South Carolina, Susan Collins losing hers in Maine, and about Texas, where Democrats were allegedly poised to win four to six new House seats. 

The possibility that the polls would fail yet again—as they did in the cases of the 2016 election, Brexit, and much of the 2018 midterm—has haunted some for weeks. In early October, Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist and the head of Park Street Strategies, which conducts polling and research around elections, told me, “National polls are absolutely, utterly useless and worthless. They will consistently show a Biden lead, by a small amount or a large amount, because all of the blue states, like California and New York, are going to go overwhelmingly to Biden. There’s no question that Biden will win the popular vote. But what national polls ignore is battleground states.” On Monday, leading into the 2020 election, I spoke to Republican and Democratic pollsters and strategists, who were hearing that the president “[had] several models that show[ed] him repeating his 2016 win, losing the popular vote by a huge margin, but winning the Electoral College by a slim-yet-definitive number.”

Now, as a potential Biden victory morphs from a landslide to a slim possibility the question is: What the hell went wrong? “I can not believe that four years later they make the same polling errors,” a Democratic adviser to Biden texted me last night. “The American fucking errors. Across the board. All the House races and states races and national races: WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.” Another Democratic government official messaged me to rant about the incompetence of the polling firms, noting that “Pollsters are good at calling easy elections, bad at calling close ones, and worse still if there are changing demographics. This means they are only useful when you don’t need them; that’s the same as being useless.”

Of course, the pollsters, and the polling aggregators, like FiveThirtyEight, see it differently, defending themselves in the face of the morass of hatred being thrown their way. As one Republican market analyst pointed out to me, “When these guys are wrong, they fall back into the ‘Well, we said there was a 10% chance’ when it makes no sense to apply probability to an event like that.” For example, the analyst said, if these aggregators run their simulations on a state like California, which has a 95% chance of going for Biden, there is no real 5% chance of Trump getting the vote, but that slim margin allows them to hedge. “These guys aren’t paid to be right,” the Republican market analyst said, “they are paid for clicks.” And if there’s one thing people have been doing a lot of over the past few months, it’s clicking on sites like FiveThirtyEight and the New York Times’ The Upshot, run by Nate Cohn.

The Nates, as many refer to Cohn and Silver, and their supporters, often plead no contest when their predictions prove to be off, saying that it’s not their math at issue but the raw polling numbers. This is called a cop-out. Imagine for a moment that Nate Silver was an oncologist, and patients went to him to deduce whether they had cancer. Doctor Silver drew blood, performed a slew of tests, and the lab results came back clean. Except—oops—you did have cancer; the lab results were wrong. But Doctor Silver continued to use the same lab for his tests. Again and again, patients were told they were healthy, when they were not. In this scenario, you wouldn’t say that the lab was at fault; Silver would be to blame for repeatedly using faulty labs. The same is true in terms of polling. At some point, the Nates should either find a new lab to analyze their tests, or quit their jobs entirely. (As of press time, Silver had not responded to a request for comment.)

When I reached back out to Kofinis to get a gauge on what will happen to the pollsters (and the Nates) after yet another abysmal showing, he didn’t seem surprised that the numbers were so far off. “This has further exposed that there is a whole cadre of pollsters, pollsters who are used by major news outlets, that are either frauds or incompetent, choose your poison,” Kofinis said to me. “At some point, people need to start being honest about the reality of polling and what it actually can and can’t do. Pollsters need to understand that their job is not to be cheerleaders. And at the end of the day, you cannot be that wrong if you tried to be that wrong.” When I asked what happens next, if we might finally free ourselves from our polling addiction, Kofinis sighed. “Here’s what’s going to happen, and here’s the tragedy of this,” he said. “Six months from now, everyone is going to forget about it. And it does a disservice to the industry, and to American people and to democracy. It’s complete and utter bullshit.” 

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