Valery Sharifulin/TASS via ZUMA

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.

What happened with the political polling this year? How did it manage to be so far off?

Without doing a deep dive, here’s the nutshell answer. It’s always been the case that not everyone answers the telephone when pollsters call. This produces a non-random sample, which pollsters have to correct using models to reweight the sample so it matches the actual electorate.

But in recent years, this problem has become acute: response rates to polling calls have plummeted to around 5 percent these days. This produces a massively lopsided sample, which in turn puts a lot of pressure on the model weights to correct things. It’s now gotten to the point where everything depends on the accuracy of the model, and if the model is off then the polling numbers are worthless. But this produces something of a tautology: the goal of the model is to emulate the “real” electorate, but there’s never any way to be sure you’ve done that since the real electorate is what you’re trying to measure in the first place.

In 2016 the models failed to adjust properly for educational levels among likely voters. In 2020 pollsters corrected for that but obviously failed to account for something else. Eventually they’ll figure out what it was. And there’s no guarantee that they’ll get it right in 2024, which might have some entirely different problem.

It’s unclear if this is a solvable problem. Perhaps we need some entirely different way of measuring public opinion—though I’m not sure what that might be. In any case, if we don’t figure out how to fix this it might be the end of political polling as we know it.

THE END...

of our fiscal year is Thursday, June 30, and we have a much larger fundraising gap than we can easily manage with only days left to go.

Right now is no time to come up short: If you value the hard-hitting, democracy-protecting, justice-advancing journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us keep charging as hard as we possibly can with a much-needed and much-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

THE END...

of our fiscal year is Thursday, June 30, and we have a much larger fundraising gap than we can easily manage with only days left to go.

Right now is no time to come up short: If you value the hard-hitting, democracy-protecting, justice-advancing journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us keep charging as hard as we possibly can with a much-needed and much-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate