November 12, 2020


Political Blogs: One question that has come out in the aftermath of the Presidential Election has to do with the gap between polling and actual electoral results. Joe Biden was polling better than Donald Trump in many of the battleground states, but there was a discrepancy between those polling results and the actual difference in most cases.

This was also a phenomenon in the 2016 election, when the polls did not predict the outcome in Trump’s contest with Hillary Clinton.

The website FiveThirtyEight.com is just one of a number of websites that have popped up to research these types of questions – and help us get a clearer view of the polling facts for future cases.

Before we continue with our article, let us take a look at the early betting odds on the Presidential Election, courtesy of the action experts at JAZZSports.ag:

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FiveThirtyEight.com: The Limits of Statistics

Political blogs such as FiveThirtyEight.com are increasingly common these days, but the founder of FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver, has delved into statistical questions in such other areas as baseball.

He first gained prominence for designing PECOTA, a system he used to predict the career arcs of players in Major League Baseball. He sold the system to Baseball Prospectus.

In 2009, Silver made Time Magazine’s list of the World’s 100 Most Influential People after putting together a system to predict the outcome of 49 of the 50 states in the 2008 presidential election. In 2012, his system got all 50 states right, along with the District of Columbia. Silver has received a number of awards for his work in statistics. In 2012 and 2013, FiveThirtyEight was named Best Political Blog by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Rolling Stone named him as a Game Changer for his influence on society in 2012.

His site is named after the number of electors (538) who gather to name the new President. The winning candidate needs a majority (270) to claim victory. His system, though, ran into trouble in 2016, when he only gave Trump a 30 percent chance of beating Clinton. That was higher than the vast majority of political analysts, but it was still way off. If you look at FiveThirtyEight.com today, you can see the site tracking the remaining races from the 2020 election that have yet to be called.

For those who wonder if Silver makes his predictions on the basis of political preferences, he has described his own politics as “somewhere in between being a libertarian and a liberal,” which offers a wide spectrum, to be sure.

So why were the polls wrong in 2016 and, to a similar degree, in 2020?

There are a variety of theories. Some polling companies still only use landlines, which means that they will talk primarily to older voters, as the percentage of younger people who have landlines is small.

Some people don’t answer calls from numbers they don’t recognize, so even for pollsters who call mobile phones, that could be a factor that reduces their effectiveness.

The research on which group (liberals vs conservatives) is less likely to answer calls from unknown phone numbers is not conclusive at this time.

What we do know, of course, is that politics is a subject that continues to bring out a lot of passion on both sides.

Trump also said during his campaign rallies that his supporters were more likely to deny their intent to vote for him when asked during polling phone calls, which might actually explain why polling numbers have failed lately with 10-point digit differentials to the actual result. 

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