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The Count #13: Can We Trust Presidential Polls This Year?

The Count is a daily newsletter and live show from The Appeal and NowThis, focused on what happens in the scenario that the 2020 presidential race is too close to call on election night, if President Donald Trump makes good on his promise to not accept the election results, and what we can do in the 77 days between election day and the inauguration to uphold our democracy.


Today, we’ll look at:

  • Whether we can trust the presidential polls after 2016.
  • Avoiding a repeat of Bush v. Gore.

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THE DAILY COUNTDOWN.

  • 7 days until election day.
  • 42 days until the deadline for all ballots to be counted.
  • 48 days until electoral college slates send their votes to Congress.
  • 71 days until Congress counts electoral college votes.
  • 85 days until inauguration day.

CAN WE TRUST PRESIDENTIAL POLLS THIS YEAR?

Despite Biden’s lead in the polls, Democrats are cautious, even untrusting, this year after their experience in 2016.

The polls failed us—bigly.” That was the sentiment in the days and weeks following Donald Trump’s 2016 election win. Journalists, voters, and even pollsters were left asking, what went wrong?

There’s three critical answers to that question, and they shine a pretty positive light on 2020:

  • THE NATIONAL POLLS WERE ALRIGHT — Hillary Clinton did actually win 2016’s popular vote by 2.8 million. That was a margin of 2 percentage points and in line with what national polls had predicted to be around a 3 percentage point lead. Polling in the final three weeks was about as accurate as polls have been on average since 1972. The election polls in 2004, 2008, and 2012 had been unusually accurate, likely lulling us into a false sense of assuredness.
  • EDUCATION COUNTS — Where polling inaccuracies arose were at the state level. College graduates are far more likely to take part in polls, and in 2016, this became particularly problematic. There was a very distinct break in who college graduates supported versus non-college graduates, particularly in the upper Midwest. Because state polls didn’t correct for this (but most national polls did), it led to an “over-estimation of support for Clinton.” This year, polling firms are weighting by education.
  • LATE-BREAKING TRUMPERS — Late-deciding voters chose to go with Trump at a far higher rate than normal. In three key states–Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida–13% of voters only decided who to vote for in the final week. Such decisions are generally too late for polling to capture.

An analysis done by the survey industry’s standards association found good news to trust in polling: “Many polls were probably fairly accurate at the time they were conducted.” Instead, it lays the blame at the feet of forecasters who didn’t translate how close the race looked to be in the polling to voters.

And there’s more good news for Democrats this year because of how large Biden’s lead is over Trump, compared to Clinton’s lead at this point in 2016. Jason Ganz, Data for Progress’ chief of staff, told The Count that to have the same effect as 2016, this year’s polls would have to be “substantially worse.”

“A polling error of the 2016 size right now would actually still point to a relatively comfortable Biden victory.”


AVOIDING A REPEAT OF BUSH V. GORE IN 2020

Another election that is haunting Democrats is that of 2000. That presidential race of course ended up in the Supreme Court with it’s Bush v Gore decision to stop a recount that could have reversed the results, and was followed by Al Gore conceding “for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy.”

Here’s how it went down:

  • Nov. 7: Election day. That night, Al Gore is declared by some media outlets as the winner of Florida’s Electoral College votes.
  • Nov. 8: In the early morning, media outlets instead declare Bush the victor of Florida and the White House. Gore calls Bush to concede, then rescinds his concession within an hour as the Florida count changes.
  • Nov. 10: Florida’s machine recount ends, with Bush having just a 327 vote lead.
  • Nov. 13: A federal court says it won’t stop manual recounts.
  • Nov. 14: A state court rejects the Gore campaign’s attempt to extend the Republican secretary of state’s 5 p.m. deadline to certify results.
  • Nov. 15 and 16: Florida Supreme Court allows hand recounts to continue.
  • Nov. 21: Florida Supreme Court rules hand recounts must be included in the state’s final tally.
  • Nov. 26: The secretary of state certifies Bush has won the state.
  • Dec. 4: The U.S. Supreme Court vacates the state Supreme Court’s ruling.
  • Dec. 8: In a different case, the Florida Supreme Court orders a recount of several thousand disputed ballots.
  • Dec. 9: The Bush campaign wins a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to stop the recount.
  • Dec. 11: Bush v. Gore is argued in the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Dec 12: The U.S. Supreme Court reverses the state Supreme Court ruling, ending the recount.
  • Dec 13: Gore concedes.

Donnie Fowler, Al Gore’s national field director during the 2000 presidential campaign, and a veteran of several more presidential campaigns, told The Count what it was like to watch Gore’s concession speech:

When thinking about how 2020 could look like 2000, some say it’s crucial to remember that Gore did not have to concede. He could have sued for a statewide recount and if the courts ruled in his favor, by some analyses he would have won Florida. Gore’s campaign also never went through with an initial plan to send a competing slate of electors to Congress. Gore’s concession is a move that progressives are urging the Biden campaign not to follow if the results of this year’s election are similarly close and in dispute.

To avoid a similar outcome for the Biden campaign, Fowler recommends they avoid the Gore campaign’s missteps that included focusing solely on the courts rather than protests, which made Bush supporters look more passionate while the Gore campaign  was “losing the visual narrative.”

“If you want to compare this year to 2000 and the Florida recount and the fact that the Gore campaign decided not to participate aggressively in the public messaging, not to participate aggressively in protesting, that’s something the Biden campaign should be prepared to do and frankly I think they are prepared to do.”


WHAT WE ARE TRACKING

  • With a week to go, the country has exceeded 2016 levels of early voting and Texas is leading the charge with voters casting more than 80% of its total 2016 ballots.
  • Republicans are closing the gap in early voting, which is eating into registered Democrats’ lead.
  • These three men have been crucial to Republican efforts to promote the false idea that voter fraud is widespread.
  • Voter suppression even happens behind bars. The vast majority of the 745,000 people held in local jails can still vote, but local officials rarely provide the support necessary.
  • The threat of foreign interference could be most potent after election day, particularly because of the president’s rhetoric on election integrity.
  • Facebook has planned for the potential need to deploy tools on election day that it normally uses for “at risk countries,” in order to slow the spread of viral content.
  • If you’ve ever wondered how mail-in ballots are made, this New York Times piece will take you on that journey.

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