By Bill Ruthhart Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Bill Ruthhart reports, "All told, just six of 104 polls conducted in the two states this year have shown Trump with a lead — and just two in the last two months. But all of this raises a simple question: Are the polls actually right this time?"
On Election Day 2016, the polls showed Hillary Clinton with a nearly 4 percentage point lead in Michigan and a 6-point lead in Wisconsin, but Republican Donald Trump would go on to win both states by less than 1 point.
Of 28 Wisconsin polls conducted in 2016, all of them showed Clinton with the lead, according to polling data tracked by RealClearPolitics. In Michigan, 36 of 37 polls had Clinton ahead. And yet Trump's victories in both states won him the presidency.
"None of those Wisconsin polls had Trump ahead, and four or five of them were mine. My final poll was plus 6 for Clinton," said Charles Franklin, a political science scholar and director of polling at Marquette University Law School. "Nobody got it right."
A little more than a week out from this year's election, the polls are offering a similar narrative with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden ahead of Trump by an average of about 5 points in Wisconsin and nearly 8 points in Michigan.
All told, just six of 104 polls conducted in the two states this year have shown Trump with a lead — and just two in the last two months. But all of this raises a simple question: Are the polls actually right this time?
The president's campaign and Republican leaders in both states contend the race is closer than the surveys show — especially the recent polls that have Biden opening up a double-digit lead following the first debate and Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis. For his part, Trump repeatedly has drummed up enthusiasm among his supporters by emphasizing how wrong the polls were four years ago.
"How about the last election? I was down in all nine places that I had to win. That wasn't a good feeling," Trump said during a recent rally in Janesville, Wisconsin. "By the end of the evening, I won all nine places, right? Think of that. Other than that, they did a great job of polling."
Democrats likewise are waving off the polls, with Biden campaign manager Jennifer O'Malley Dillon writing in a recent memo that "even the best polling can be wrong" as she called on supporters to "campaign like we're trailing."
"I don't care about the polls. There were a whole bunch of polls last time, didn't work out," former President Barack Obama said at a drive-in rally for Biden last Wednesday in Philadelphia. "Because all those folks stayed at home and got lazy and complacent. Not this time. Not in this election."
Pollsters, however, point to a variety of factors that give them more faith their numbers are more accurate this time — fewer undecided voters, less influence from third-party candidates, a better understanding of Trump's voters and very little fluctuation among Americans in their support for — and opposition to — the president.
"This year, I think the polls are going to be more reflective of the actual vote," said Barry Burden, a political science professor and director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "It's not because the polls and the technology that are used have been improved tremendously. It's mostly because it's a better environment for polling."
After the polling mishaps four years ago, Burden was charged with heading up a new battleground states survey for the University of Wisconsin that has polled the three swing states that Trump won by less than 1 percentage point — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Burden described a "paucity of high quality polling" in those states, particularly in Michigan, where he said plenty of "fly-by-night operations" and automated robopolls helped contribute to the bad polling averages. So did a large share of undecided voters.
At this time four years ago, polls in Michigan and Wisconsin had anywhere between 10% and 15% undecided voters. But this year, that number is closer to 5%, Burden said. That leaves less room for volatility late in the race.
In addition, undecided voters unexpectedly broke big for Trump. Wisconsin exit polls in 2016, for example, showed those late undecided voters backing Trump by a 2-to-1 margin, Franklin said.
Because of that unexpected late shift, Franklin said Marquette added a question to its polls this year pressing undecided voters on who they'd cast a ballot for if they had to vote that day. That has helped them to conduct a statistical analysis on how those few undecided voters might break this time. So far, Franklin said, they are splitting evenly between Trump and Biden, making it less likely for a last-minute dramatic shift in support.
Four years ago, Trump and Clinton were both historically unpopular candidates. That's less of a factor this year, both pollsters agreed. Trump is more popular with the GOP base than he was in 2016, and Biden has a much higher favorability rating among voters at large than Clinton had.
In 2016, Wisconsin polls showed that 20% of voters disliked both Trump and Clinton. Of those dissatisfied voters, exit polls showed 60% backed Trump, 20% backed Clinton and 20% voted third party, Franklin said. This year, the number of voters who dislike both candidates is just 8%, he noted. Fewer dissatisfied voters paired with the high-stakes nature of the race has meant far less support for third-party candidates, removing another factor that led to late swings in the race four years ago, Franklin and Burden agreed.
Yet another reason the pollsters say their final surveys are likely to be more accurate: early voting. As many as 50% to 60% of voters could bank their votes by Election Day, Burden said.
"That winnows down the wiggle room for the polls to be wrong," he said. Also different this time: Trump isn't just known as a bombastic TV-reality-show-star-turned-politician who might be worth a roll of the electoral dice. Now, he is an incumbent who has been impeached by Congress and has had to govern amid a pandemic and subsequent economic recession.
"People have strong views about the guy, and everyone has an opinion," Burden said. "This is a referendum on his presidency, and there tend to be fewer undecided voters in that environment."
The opinion of Trump has been incredibly stable, Franklin noted, pointing to the president's approval rating hovering around 40% for much of his tenure. That makes it unlikely voters will change their minds about Trump in the eleventh hour.
"When you look at job approval in the Gallup poll going back to Franklin Roosevelt, no president is anywhere close — ever — to how small the variation has been in Trump's approval rating over the four years," Franklin said.
The biggest miss among many pollsters four years ago was not accounting for the educational makeup of the electorate. That turned out to be a critical factor as Trump's support skewed heavily toward white, non-college educated voters.
Typically, polls "weight" their results to give proper representation to a group that might have been under-sampled in a survey, compared to census data for that area. The practice is done by race, age, sex and other factors, but many state-level polls four years ago did not weight education.
"Less educated people are harder to get on the phone, and they're harder to get to interview for a poll, but that has been true for decades," Franklin said. "Twenty years ago, if you had too many highly educated people in your poll, it didn't shift your vote estimate much but in recent elections, it does and that's why it's so important to weight it."