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Business News/ News / World/  Election 2020: Will the polls get it right?
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Election 2020: Will the polls get it right?

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Some surveys, especially in battleground states, got the results wrong in 2016. Here’s what the polls are telling us about this year’s race

CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA - NOVEMBER 02: An election official (3rd R) confirms voter information as voters wait in line to cast their ballots on the final day of early voting for the 2020 presidential election on November 2, 2020 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Nearly 100 million early votes have been cast nationwide as President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden continue to campaign across the country on the final day before Election Day. Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP == FOR NEWSPAPERS, INTERNET, TELCOS & TELEVISION USE ONLY == (AFP)Premium
CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA - NOVEMBER 02: An election official (3rd R) confirms voter information as voters wait in line to cast their ballots on the final day of early voting for the 2020 presidential election on November 2, 2020 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Nearly 100 million early votes have been cast nationwide as President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden continue to campaign across the country on the final day before Election Day. Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP == FOR NEWSPAPERS, INTERNET, TELCOS & TELEVISION USE ONLY == (AFP)

Vice President Joe Biden holds a 10-point lead over President Trump in the final Wall Street Journal/NBC News national survey, while polls in many battleground states suggest that enough are in play to allow either candidate to build an Electoral College majority.

Here are some questions and answers about what polls say about the race—and what they can’t tell us.

Q: What does polling say about the presidential election?

Mr. Biden’s lead among voters nationally is about the same as then-candidate Barack Obama held in the final Journal/NBC News poll in 2008. Mr. Obama went on to win the popular vote by 7 points and carry 365 electoral votes, comfortably more than the 270 needed.

Mr. Biden’s lead is also larger than the 4-point advantage that Hillary Clinton, the prior Democratic nominee, held in the final Journal/NBC News poll in 2016.

But as Mr. Trump’s win that year illustrated, a candidate can lose the popular vote and still win in the Electoral College. Averages of state polls show tight races in most swing states.

Q. Polls missed the mark in 2016. Can we trust them now?

Many people who set their expectations of the 2016 outcome by looking at polls were surprised by Mr. Trump’s win, as most surveys showed leads for Mrs. Clinton, though often modest ones.

In studying why many polls missed the mark, the American Association for Public Opinion Research, a professional association, determined that national polls were among the most accurate in 80 years. Collectively, national surveys pointed to a 3-point win by Mrs. Clinton. She won the popular vote by 2 points, well within the margin of error of most polls.

But many pollsters in individual states failed to detect the strength of support for Mr. Trump, especially in Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest. A panel convened by the public opinion group pointed to two main problems.

Many pollsters included too many college graduates in their samples and too few working-class voters, or those without four-year college degrees. The panel found that rural voters may have been underrepresented as well. As a result, those polls included too many Clinton supporters and too few Trump supporters.

In addition, a large share of voters settled on a candidate only in the final week of the campaign—some 13% in Wisconsin, Florida and Pennsylvania. The late-deciding voters broke heavily for Mr. Trump, by nearly 30 points in the case of Wisconsin, the panel found. Pollsters who didn’t field surveys at the end of the campaign missed the shift.

National polls also found a large share of voters uncommitted to either major-party candidate, even at the end of the race. In the final Journal/NBC News poll, 16% of voters said they were undecided or backing a third-party candidate, a large share that signaled fragility in Mrs. Clinton’s 4-point lead over Mr. Trump in that survey.

Q. Have the state pollsters adjusted for the missteps of 2016?

One important difference from the 2016 election could make polling this year more accurate: Fewer voters are undecided at this late stage in the campaign, suggesting that there is less chance for a big, last-minute shift in candidate support.

Beyond that, more pollsters have started making statistical adjustments to ensure that voters without college degrees are properly represented in their polls. But not all have done so.

At the same time, new firms have started conducting polls, many using online surveys. The online polls use an assortment of methodologies. A study by the Pew Research Center found that they vary in their ability to build a sample of respondents that matches the known characteristics of the public. These polls add new uncertainties as the public looks to polling as a measure of the race in battleground states.

Q. How close is the race in state polling?

Polls in many battleground states find that the race is close—but they lean toward a Biden advantage in most of them.

One aggregate of polls, by the website Real Clear Politics, found Mr. Biden leading as of Monday morning by 1 percentage point in Florida, by 4 points in Pennsylvania, 5 points in Michigan and more than 6 points in Wisconsin.

In 2016, the site’s polling averages understated Mr. Trump’s ultimate support in all those states, though in Florida the difference was small. If those averages miss the final result by the same amount as in 2016, and the error again favors Mr. Trump, then Mr. Biden’s leads in Florida and Wisconsin, as seen in polling, would essentially disappear. His leads in Michigan and Pennsylvania would fall to less than 2 percentage points.

Q. How do pollsters know who will vote?

Not every registered voter participates in an election, and many pollsters try to sift out those who won’t cast ballots from those who will.

By asking questions that assess a person’s chances of voting, pollsters late in a campaign often present results only among those they think are the likeliest voters. Different pollsters have different methods for deciding who is likely to vote.

This year, interest in the election is near record levels, and many signs point to record turnout. Republicans have made gains in voter registration in many states, hoping to change the composition of the electorate. And many states have changed election laws, with some mailing a ballot to every registered voter.

In other words, this year is like no other. The Journal/NBC News pollsters decided that the best course is to present results among the broadest set of the electorate—all registered voters—as past methods for determining who is likely to vote may not apply to this election.

Q. If the race is decided state-by-state, what can national polls tell us?

National polls can’t predict the Electoral College outcome. But generally, the larger the national lead, the more likely it is that the candidate can assemble enough states for an Electoral College majority.

Beyond that, a national poll gives clues to the broader environment. The latest WSJ/NBC survey, for example, suggests that the 2020 election will have a large gender gap, with women favoring Mr. Biden and men narrowly favoring Mr. Trump. It shows that the coronavirus outbreak is about equal as a concern as the economy as voters decide on a candidate.

The harder challenge is determining which candidate has the greater support in a close race, especially when the outcome shows that the candidates were separated by less than 1 percentage point. That was the case in several states in 2016.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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