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Once counting ends, questions about polling need to be answered

Underestimation of Trump support shaped down-ballot projections

Supporters of President Donald Trump rally outside Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where Trump is being treated for COVID-19 on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020.
Supporters of President Donald Trump rally outside Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where Trump is being treated for COVID-19 on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — Based on everything else that has happened this year, it is fitting that the fights for the White House and Senate continue on past Election Day. 

The scenario of extended uncertainty shouldn’t be a surprise, since the media has been talking about the need for patience for months. But walking through the scenario in real time is jarring. 

No matter what the either candidate says, the race for the White House is not over, as neither candidate has secured the 270 Electoral College votes necessary to win. 

Joe Biden’s shortest path to victory has always been Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and that path remains intact. That said, winning Arizona and Nebraska’s 2nd District means Biden can win without Pennsylvania with wins in Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin. North Carolina, where President Donald Trump leads and needs to win, is still outstanding as well, as is Georgia. 

If all of the legal votes are counted, you might rather be Biden than Trump. But this is obviously a very close race that either of them can win. 

No matter who wins the presidential race, it’s clear that the vast majority of the polling under-estimated Trump’s support once again. For months, we’ve been saying that it would take dozens of pollsters, partisan and nonpartisan, independently making the same methodological mistake for the outcome to be different than what we were projecting. And that is apparently what happened.

The majority of national polls, state polls, and district polls told the same story, that Trump was on track to underperform his 2016 margins by upwards of 8 points, consistent with a Biden lead closing in on double digits. To be clear, this wasn’t just an issue with Democratic polls. Nonpartisan and Republican polls were largely in agreement about the president’s precarious situation, in states ranging from deep blue California to bright red Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, and Alaska.

It’s not yet clear if the president really was down as much as the polls indicated, and made up that ground in the final week of the race, or if the polls never reflected the president’s true strength. We’ll know more in the coming days as the final results come into focus.

The significant underestimation of Trump’s support had a tremendous impact on down ballot races and projections. 

We made the calculation that Democrats would win a disproportionate share of the close Senate and House races based on Trump’s underperformance at the national, state, and House level. But as we’ve seen so far, however, Trump is reaching or exceeding his 2016 totals in many key areas, dramatically boosting Republicans for the House and Senate.

Republicans were facing a potential double-digit loss in the House in the face of Trump’s underperformance. Instead, Republicans have gained seats, even though they’ll fall short of the 17 they need for a majority, with Trump performing much closer to his 2016 margins. 

Trump’s performance dramatically affected the fight for the Senate as well. His strength in Iowa, North Carolina, Montana, South Carolina, Kansas, and Texas gives Republicans a legitimate chance to maintain control of the Senate. To control the Senate, Democrats likely need Biden to win (to lower the threshold for control to a net gain of three seats), have both Georgia seats go to a runoff and then win both of them. That would mean no one will know for sure which party’s in control until after the Jan. 5 runoff happens — and all of those votes get counted.

A key question moving forward is whether public opinion polling is irreparably broken or if polling is just broken in elections with Trump on the ballot. For example, our projections in the 2018 midterm elections, using the same methods of analysis, were accurate. We projected a Democratic gain of 25-35 House seats and Democrats gained 40. Our Senate projection was no net change to Republican gain of two seats. And Republicans gained two seats. 

Amidst the uncertainty of the outcome, there are at least two certainties: America remains a very divided country and we’re having another cycle that we’ll be talking about for another two (or four) years.

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