Despite all this, the apparent results of the presidential election fall within the “likely range” of outcomes projected by polls and forecasts. Those ranges exist for a reason: For all that some readers treat these mathematical analyses as dispatches from the future, that’s an impossible expectation. The nature of public opinion research, which uses a sample as a stand-in for a larger entity such as a congressional district, state or the whole nation, means that polls are more shotguns than sniper rifles: They don’t have long-range precision, and they produce a spread of possibilities rather than one pinpoint prediction.
Heading into the election, it was clear that late deciders might break for Trump, or that surveys could systematically underestimate him, leading to a narrow Biden victory or a Trump win. And that’s the territory we’re in now: Biden and Trump both have paths to victory, which was always possible given a normal amount of polling error.
And we won’t know exactly how much the polls erred until the vote is fully counted. While we have results in some fast-counting states such as Florida and Texas, Pennsylvania — a key state that polls missed in 2016 — as well as North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada have not been called. The national popular vote will also take a while to finalize. California, the nation’s most populous state, is a notoriously slow vote counter. Until results are finalized, any discussion of survey or forecast error in the national popular vote — or any victory claims by pollsters — will be incomplete.