by David Catron
Lately, pollsters and pundits have been nervously pondering the following question: “If Trump is behind in the polls, why do most voters say, in the same surveys, that he will win the upcoming election?” As Harry Enten recently noted at CNN, “An average of recent polls finds that a majority of voters (about 55%) believe that Trump will defeat Biden in the election. Trump’s edge on this question has remained fairly consistent over time.” This is far more than mere statistical curiosity by number nerds. Several peer-reviewed studies have shown that surveys of voter expectations are far more predictive of election outcomes than polls of voter intentions.
The polls that appear to portend a one-term presidency for Trump actually predict that the president will trounce Biden badly this November.
According to studies conducted by researchers in the United States and in Europe, any pollster attempting to divine the outcome of an election should pay far less attention to what survey respondents say about the candidate they plan to vote for than the candidate they actually believe is going to win. Professor Andreas Graefe of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LSU Munich), proclaims these citizen forecasts, as they are sometimes categorized, “the most accurate method that we have to predict election outcomes.” Dr. Graefe elaborates on this assertion at considerable length in Public Opinion Quarterly under the title “Accuracy of Vote Expectation Surveys in Forecasting”:
Across the last 100 days prior to the seven elections from 1988 to 2012, vote expectation surveys provided more accurate forecasts of election winners and vote shares than four established methods (vote intention polls, prediction markets, quantitative models, and expert judgment). Gains in accuracy were particularly large compared to polls. On average, the error of expectation-based vote-share forecasts was 51 percent lower than the error of polls published the same day.
Vote expectation surveys have been with us since the 1930s, just as long as scientific polling, but have never been used very widely as a tool for predicting election outcomes. As Professor Graefe puts it, “Only recently have researchers begun to specifically study vote expectation surveys as a method for forecasting elections.” Among the researchers who have examined the voter expectation data in recent years are Justin Wolfers of the University of Michigan Department of Economics and David Rothschild of the Microsoft Research and Applied Statistics Center. They published their findings at the Brookings Institution website under the title “Forecasting Elections: Voter Intentions versus Expectations.”
Wolfers and Rothschild, like Professor Graefe, found that voter expectations concerning who would win a given election were consistently more predictive than surveys using only conventional polling questions such as, “If the election were held today, who would you vote for?” They compared the predictive efficacy of these voter preference surveys to those that also asked questions about voter expectations, such as, “Regardless of who you plan to vote for, who do you think will win the upcoming election?” The answers to the latter queries proved significantly more useful in producing accurate election forecasts than polls that focused primarily on questions involving voter intentions:
Our primary dataset consists of all the state-level electoral presidential college races from 1952 to 2008, where both the intention and expectation question are asked. In the 77 cases in which the intention and expectation question predict different candidates, the expectation question picks the winner 60 times, while the intention question only picked the winner 17 times. That is, 78% of the time that these two approaches disagree, the expectation data was correct.
This brings us back to those pundits and pollsters we saw frowning over statistics showing that poll respondents frequently give two different answers when asked whom they will vote for and whom they expect to win. Politico recently reported, “When pollsters ask Americans who they think will win the election — not who they are voting for themselves — Trump performs relatively well.” Even in surveys like the new Economist/YouGov poll that shows Trump down 49-40 nationally, only 39 percent of registered voters say Biden will beat him. In Pennsylvania, the new Monmouth poll shows Biden trouncing Trump. Yet, when asked who will win, the voters say the election is a toss-up.
This is what renders conventional election surveys so unreliable. It is what caused Gallup, the organization that invented “scientific polling” in 1936 when George Gallup and his team predicted the reelection of Franklin Roosevelt, to stop participating in presidential horserace polling and predicting the ultimate winner of the elections after 2012. Other pollsters have been less sagacious, which resulted in the 2016 debacle. Their 2020 projections are almost certainly yet another sloppy pig’s breakfast. Consequently, most voters don’t believe the polls, and that includes the disloyal opposition. As Tim Young writes in the Washington Times, Democrats don’t even believe these polls:
If Democrats believed the polls, you wouldn’t see The New York Times demanding real-time leftist fact checkers and Mr. Trump’s tax returns in order for the former vice president to show up for a debate. Surely, he would be able to show up and dominate Mr. Trump in a debate — after all, Americans in every poll dislike the president.… If Democrats believed the polls, why were there protests blocking the road to Mr. Trump’s 4th of July celebration and speech at Mount Rushmore?
This is why few election polls include the dangerous question, “Who do you think will win the upcoming election?” The pollsters know about the research discussed above, they are familiar with the predictive nature of voter expectation surveys, and they know that including such a deadly query will produce accurate results that will enrage their paymasters. They remember what happened to Nate Silver when he dared to suggest that Trump had a chance of defeating Hillary Clinton in 2016. The pollsters and the pundits who write about their findings don’t want to be canceled for telling the truth, that a number of polls contain what Professor Graefe calls citizen forecasts indicating Trump is going to win.
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David Catron is a recovering health care consultant and frequent contributor to The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter at @Catronicus.