Dem pollsters: Our 2020 polling had 'major errors' (and we're still not sure why)

One of the big shocks last November was just how bad the polling was in many places around the country. The NY Times published at least two pieces which said the 2020 polling was somewhere between almost as bad or maybe even worse than 2016. Here’s what the Times’ David Leonhardt wrote:

For the second straight presidential election, the polling industry missed the mark. The miss was not as blatant as in 2016, when polls suggested Mr. Trump would lose, nor was the miss as large as it appeared it might be on election night. Once all the votes are counted, the polls will have correctly pointed to the winner of the presidential campaign in 48 states — all but Florida and North Carolina — and correctly signaled that Mr. Biden would win.

But this year’s problems are still alarming, both to people inside the industry and to the millions of Americans who follow presidential polls with a passion once reserved for stock prices, sports scores and lottery number.

He also included this handy chart showing how far off many of these polls were:

And it wasn’t just the presidential polling that was off. In Maine, not a single poll ever showed Sen. Susan Collins leading her race, yet she won by 7.5 points. In Kentucky, polls showed a Senate race of five or ten points but Sen. McConnell won the race by 20. The situation was bad enough that David Graham writing at the Atlantic called it a “catastrophe for American democracy.”

Today, Politico reports that a group of Democratic pollsters have performed an autopsy on their 2020 results and admit there were “major errors.”

A group of top Democratic Party pollsters are set to release a public statement Tuesday acknowledging “major errors” in their 2020 polling — errors that left party officials stunned by election results that failed to come close to expectations in November…

“Twenty-twenty was an ‘Oh, s—‘ moment for all of us,” said one pollster involved in the effort, who was granted anonymity to discuss the process candidly. “And I think that we all kinda quickly came to the point that we need to set our egos aside. We need to get this right.”

So what exactly are the errors they have uncovered? The first big one related to turnout [emphasis in original]:

Now that we have had time to review the voter files from 2020, we found our models consistently overestimated Democratic turnout relative to Republican turnout in a specific way. Among low propensity voters—people who we expect to vote rarely—the Republican share of the electorate exceeded expectations at four times the rate of the Democratic share. This turnout error meant, at least in some places, we again underestimated relative turnout among rural and white non-college voters, who are overrepresented among low propensity Republicans.

The other issue they dub “measurement error” but that’s really just a catch-all. Were the polls wrong because of shy voters? Was there a late surge for Trump? Did the pandemic have an impact? Even months later, they just don’t know [emphasis in original]:

While there is evidence some of these theories played a part, no consensus on a solution has emerged. What we have settled on is the idea there is something systematically different about the people we reached, and the people we did not. This problem appears to have been amplified when Trump was on the ballot, and it is these particular voters who Trump activated that did not participate in polls.

The full statement doesn’t seem particularly optimistic about fixing either of these problems. The plan is to experiment but here’s the last word: “Polling was very accurate in some places and inaccurate in others, and the explanation for why is not yet clear.” Not very reassuring is it?

Reading between the lines, I think these Democratic pollsters are hoping that all of this error is tied to President Trump and therefore, if he doesn’t run again, the 2024 polling will suddenly be more accurate. But was it hidden Trump voters who re-elected Susan Collins as well? I guess I’d need to see some more data before going with that idea.