Indeed, Jackson and other experts argue that the buzz around predicting elections — along with some of the backlash when those predictions seem to fall short — misses the actual function of opinion polling. “The purpose of polls is not to predict an election,” said Ashley Kirzinger, associate director of public opinion and survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“What we’re trying to do,” she added, “is provide some insight into what voters are thinking about in the months and weeks leading up to an election.”
Pollsters ask voters about their opinions on key issues, not just their vote. But, said Kirzinger, “I think the public, unfortunately, has taken polls to mean just ‘things that feed aggregators,’ and not actually dig into what the polls are actually telling us.”
Aggregators and forecasters, meanwhile, suggest that the public needs to better learn what aggregation and forecasting actually do, which is to model and then give odds to a variety of potential outcomes, not to predict a winner. When FiveThirtyEight gave Trump, in the waning days of the 2020 campaign, a 10 percent chance of victory, for example, the site very prominently contextualized those odds: “A 10 percent chance of winning is not a zero percent chance,” the site reminded visitors. “In fact, that is roughly the same odds that it’s raining in downtown Los Angeles. And it does rain there.”