The Pre-Election Polls Were Wrong. The Exit Polls Are Worse
November 11, 2020
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Even when the votes are counted, you should still be wary of analysis that purports to reveal insights about voter behavior based on shifts in certain areas.

“You can’t use aggregate data to say something about how individuals behaved,” said Brian Schaffner, a pollster and political scientist at Tufts. This, Schaffner explained, is a version of what’s known as the “ecological fallacy.” A lot of people from a certain demographic group may happen to live in one area, but that doesn’t mean they’re driving whatever electoral shift takes place from one year to the next. “You could, for example, say, ‘These Latino precincts shifted Republican,’” Schaffner said. “But maybe that’s because the white voters in those precincts just voted more Republican for whatever reason, maybe as a reaction to increasing diversity in those precincts.”

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None of this is to say that any of the emerging narratives about how various groups voted this year are wrong. We just don’t know yet. Certainly, the results in places like Miami and the Rio Grande Valley, where Trump wildly overperformed expectations, strongly suggest a meaningful shift to the right among the Latino voters who live there. At the same time, however, in electoral politics, a lot rides on small differences. Whether Trump improved his margin among Black voters by 2 percentage points, as the pre-election AP Votecast poll suggests, or by 4 points, as the Edison exit poll does—or by more, or less, or not at all—matters a fair bit for political strategists and indeed for anyone trying to make sense of the election results.

“Many pundits and commentators are far too quick to use flawed data sources, and this often produces an election narrative that persists even when better data and analysis call it into question,” said John Sides, a political scientist at Vanderbilt.

The good news is, help is on the way. By sometime early next year, states will have finished updating their voter files, meaning public information will exist on exactly who did and did not vote this year. That’s important, because yet another problem with survey-based analysis is that people lie not only before Election Day about whether they intend to vote, but also afterwards, about whether they actually did. (According to Schaffner, college-educated people are particularly bad offenders.) Once the voter files are updated, several organizations will release data from large surveys that is matched against those validated files. These include the Cooperative Election Study, which Schaffner helps administer; as well as Pew’s validated voter survey, which is as close to a gold standard as exists in the polling business.

Studies like these will give a much more accurate sense of who really voted, and for whom. Unfortunately, they probably won’t be released until next summer. What’s a politics junky to do in the meantime? Ignore the noise. Play with your kids, call your parents. It may be unsatisfying to have to wait for answers, but, as I hardly need to remind you, that’s a lot better than buying into narratives that turn out to be untrue.

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