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October 16, 2020
What do election polls tell us?
Over the last four years, the frequent refrain about election polling is the polls were so wrong in 2016. But just how far off were the polls?
In 2016, the final RealClearPolitics poll showed Clinton with a 3.2% lead. She won the popular vote by 2.1%, only 1.1%-points less than polls suggested, as shown in the chart below. This difference was more than we saw in 2004 and 2008, but less than both 2000 and 2012. Part of the dissonance is likely not caused by the inaccuracy of polls, but rather the disconnect between the popular vote margin and the winner-take-all Electoral College, which delivered President Trump a solid 77-vote margin of victory, despite losing the popular vote. Further undermining the reputation of the polls is the conflating of polls and probabilities. The vast majority of political commentators and news outlets predicted a high probability of a Clinton victory.
Popular vote spread minus final poll spread
Source: Gallup, RealClearPolitics, J.P. Morgan Asset Management. Final polls from 2004-2016 are final RealClearPolitics average; final poll from 2000 is latest from Gallup. Popular vote spread based on winner of popular vote minus opponent in all cases. Final poll spread based on winner of popular vote minus opponent. Data are as of October 14, 2020.