SSRS Launches 2020 Election Polling Coverage

Analysis by Mark Schulman, SSRS Senior Research Consultant  |  October 10, 2019

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.

SSRS’s election polling clients include CNN, other major media, and university researchers.

Yes, You Can Still Trust the Polls

True that pollsters have been under fire since Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the 2016 Presidential election. Some pundits even proclaimed “the death of polling.” Others just felt they were misled by the polls.  Yet this initial kneejerk reaction did not reflect the actual accuracy of most of the polling data available.

While the state polling was off in 2016, national polls conducted by the major “gold standard” polling organizations such as SSRS, were highly accurate. In what was a very volatile race, most national election polls, including ours, had Hillary Clinton leading in the national polls at the end by about 3%. With final vote counts, Hillary Clinton outpaced Trump by almost 3 million votes, about 2.1%, well within most polling’s error margin.

Polling analyst Nate Silver summed it up: “Polls of the November 2016 presidential election were about as accurate as polls of presidential elections have been on average since 1972. And polls of gubernatorial and congressional elections in 2016 were about as accurate, on average, as polls of those races since 1998.”

But, Every State Counts

The lesson that had to be relearned in 2016 was that the “so-called” Presidential race is really 50 separate state elections, with 270 electoral votes in the states determining the winner. Many states had no quality polls. In some cases, there were no polls at all.

The popular vote measured in the national polls, while often a good indicator, is not the final arbiter. It’s in the Electoral College where the Trump campaign won the battle, not in the national popular vote.  And he did win Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by very thin margins. But, in the Electoral College, a win is a win.  The margin of victory was far smaller than the margin of error of the polls in these states.  We have to be honest that polling can only provide a general picture and cannot project elections down to the tenth of a percent.  Still, pollsters like SSRS took a deep look inward, and have come up with additional scientific protocols to improve accuracy moving forward.  Races will still be tight, and voter preference can change in a heartbeat, but polling remains one of the only ways to get an accurate read on the voting preferences of the population prior to the actual vote.  Polling continues to be a highly accurate and incredibly important tool for elections and democracy.

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 Insight from Mark Schulman

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.