Can the Polls Be Trusted in 2020?


After the 2016 election, many people found themselves questioning the accuracy of the polls. The election had not gone the way people expected according to the opinion surveys. Many people were left feeling suspicious of polls and with good reason. So is political polling trustworthy in 2020? 


The word “unprecedented” gets tossed around a lot in 2020 and very rightly so. We are facing a once-in-a-generation pandemic, a hurricane and wildfire season unlike anything we’ve seen before and an economic collapse that is unequal to any event in our history books. There is no precedent for these circumstances, and that makes polling data, even from the most in-depth political polling, difficult to interpret. 


The kind of constant polling that is normal to us is relatively new, and with presidential elections only happening every four years, it’s hard to get a sense of certainty. Even if we had detailed tracking polls for every presidential election in American history, we have only had 58 presidential elections, and 58 is not a large sample size.


On top of all that, it’s very hard to predict what will happen in the coming weeks. Unpredictable times mean unpredictable results. Rarely has there been more potential for a paradigm-shifting October Surprise. 

Consequently, there is no easy answer to this question. Some of the polls are trustworthy, and some are not. The amount of unprecedented, uncertain and unpredictable circumstances contributes to general unreliability, but it can be accounted for if your pollster is careful and if your analyst is thoughtful. That said, it’s dangerously reductive to say that the polls were wrong in 2016. If a candidate has a 75% chance of victory, then that still leaves a one-in-four chance the person will lose. Polls are not crystal balls; they do not show the future. They only tell you how likely or unlikely a certain prospect is. 


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