The Great Debate About Polls

Whenever people try to explain away polling results that they don’t like, I get nervous. That’s because in 2012 we all witnessed the great unskewing of polls that led Republicans from Romney to Rove to be so terribly wrong in forecasting the results of that election.

What we are witnessing right now is a lot of people weighing in on polls that indicate a tight race between Clinton and Trump in November. While cable news is in panic mode about them, analysts like Norm Ornstein and Alan Abramowitz are saying: Stop the Polling Insanity. They mention several things that are important to sooth the panic – like this:

The demographic composition of the American electorate is changing rapidly, becoming more racially diverse with every election cycle, and these changes are most evident among the youngest generation of voters. Because there is a deep racial and generational divide between the parties, underrepresenting younger voters and racial minorities can seriously bias poll results. This problem is likely to be exacerbated by the presence at the top of the Republican ticket of Mr. Trump, whose electoral strategy is based on appealing to older white voters.

But if you are uncomfortable with any attempt to dismiss poll results, Sam Wang makes an argument that is impossible to ignore.

I encourage you to go check out his data. But here are the results:

So before the primaries start, February is a time when national polls tell us a fair amount about the final outcome…

The election is 169 days from now, and in about a week the standard deviation hits its maximum value for 2016. Truly, now is the single worst time to be paying attention to fresh polling data…

Amusingly, national polls won’t reach their February levels of accuracy until August. The Clinton-Trump margin in February was Clinton +5.0%. So how about if we just use that until after the conventions. Can you wait?

No, the media definitely won’t wait until August. But you have fair warning: rright now is the worst time to draw conclusions from the polls.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.