Nate Silver, who leads the polling analysis group FiveThirtyEight, defended 2020 polling amid a sea of criticism that estimates once again miscalculated how well President Trump would perform in an election.
“If you want certainty about election outcomes, polls aren’t going to give you that — at least, not most of the time,” he said in an article Wednesday.
“It’s not because the polls are bad. On the contrary, I’m amazed that polls are as good as they are.” He added that low response rates, changes in voters’ opinions, and sampling errors made it “astonishing that polls get within a couple of points the large majority of the time.”
As Silver noted, he is not a pollster, but his outlet received a lot of blowback over its predictions. Like FiveThirtyEight, RealClearPolitics also aggregates polls and calculates averages to determine how far ahead particular candidates are in races.
A large swath of the polls they used predicted inaccurate results at multiple levels. One of the most striking, for example, came from Maine where more than a dozen polls showed Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, losing to Democrat Sara Gideon. Collins ended up winning that race, and RealClearPolitics puts her margin of victory at 8.8 points.
FiveThirtyEight’s final forecast gave Trump a 10 in 100 chance of winning, compared to 89 in 100 for Biden. “Biden was a reasonably heavy favorite in our forecast precisely because he could withstand a normal-sized or slightly larger polling error and still come out narrowly ahead — and that’s pretty much what happened,” Silver said.
Meanwhile, pollster Frank Luntz has urged those in his profession to seek work elsewhere.
“I think what is happening is accountability in action,” Luntz argued. “And if you got it wrong this time, you got it wrong twice in a row, you shouldn’t be working in the business. There are other things you can do. You can sell real estate. You can sell stocks. Stop selling polls.”
Last week, Luntz argued that the polling errors were unprecedented. He referenced The Washington Post, which predicted Trump would lose Wisconsin by 17 points in a joint poll with ABC News. With 99% of precincts reporting, President-elect Biden is currently leading Trump by less than one point.
“They should’ve known better because they got it wrong four years ago,” Luntz said.
Silver maintained, however, that the 2020 polling overall wasn’t that far off from how polls have performed in previous elections.
“In any event, we should expect a miss of around 4 points from Biden’s final margin of 8.4 points in national polls, though as I said at the outset, this is actually pretty normal by historical standards,” he said.
In swing states, the polling had similar results, Silver said.
“Between the 18 states and congressional districts that we considered to be competitive this cycle, it looks as though the final FiveThirtyEight polling averages will have underestimated Trump by around 3.7 percentage points, on average,” he said.
Fox News’ Yael Halon contributed to this report.