Polling Beyond the Horse Race and Trial Heats

Analysis by Mark Schulman, SSRS Senior Research Consultant  |  October 29, 2019

The reason politicians and media focus on polls is that polling provides a vital link between voters and candidates. Surveys give a representative sample of citizens a voice to communicate with their elected officials and candidates seeking office.  And, of course, polls create news.

Many polls focus on the “horse-race” or the trial heats – who’s ahead, who’s trailing, who’s surging, who’s sinking. But election polls really provide a snap-shot in time of what is often a fast-moving target, even at the last minute, as in 2016. But polling does much more.

SSRS’s surveys of Americans are based on probability sampling methods to ensure representative samples of adults and likely voters, with mobile phones being the large majority of numbers dialed.

SSRS election polling has a broader focus – to understand the real meaning of the election.

The big questions our SSRS polls will be targeting and tracking in 2020 include:

  • What are the major issues facing the nation?
  • Where do voters stand on these issues?
  • How do voters view the candidates?
  • Which way will swing voters swing?
  • Who will turn out at the polls to vote and who stays at home?
  • How will turnout impact the outcome?

We also classify voters by their party preferences and key demographics, such as age, education level, gender, and race.

A big challenge to election polling is identifying who is likely to show up at the polls and how it impacts the outcome – who wins and who loses. Turnout is ultimately what decides the fate of many candidates. SSRS methodologists have developed measures to separate out voters from non-voters.

SSRS Upholds High Polling Standards

As the 2020 election brings increased attention to the polls, it’s a good time to remind the public, press and pundits to be discerning.  SSRS subscribes to the Transparency Initiative of the American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) and strictly abides by AAPOR’s Code of Professional Ethics and Practices. All SSRS publicly-released surveys disclose methods, sample size and geographic coverage, interview dates, and other information to evaluate survey quality.

Your opinion counts.  Be sure to participate if you are contacted by a legitimate pollster.  But remember, elections are won and lost not by who participates in the opinion polls, but who actually gets to the polls on election day!

Mark Schulman, Ph.D., a veteran of the polling industry, has worked extensively with the news media and served as Time magazine’s pollster for almost ten years. He is a former president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research and has been interviewed by many news media outlets including CNN, Fox News, Vice Media/HBO, Time Magazine and the BBC.

Additional Insights From Mark Schulman

With the 2020 presidential campaign heating up, SSRS’s non-partisan national and key state polls are providing the news media, candidates, political pundits, and researchers with snapshots of Americans’ views on critical issues, where voters stand on these issues, candidate preferences, and approval ratings of elected officials.