The Polls Aren’t Skewed: Trump Really Is Losing Badly
We’ve reached that stage of the campaign. The back-to-school commercials are on the air, and the “unskewing” of polls has begun — the quadrennial exercise in which partisans simply adjust the polls to get results more to their liking, usually with a thin sheen of math-y words to make it all sound like rigorous analysis instead of magical thinking.
If any of this sounds familiar — and if I sound a little exasperated — it’s probably because we wentthroughthis four years ago. Remember UnSkewedPolls.com? (The website is defunct, but you can view an archived picture of it here.) The main contention of that site and others like it was that the polls had too many Democratic respondents in their samples. Dean Chambers, who ran the site, regularly wrote that the polls were vastly undercounting independents and should have used a higher proportion of Republicans in their samples. But in the end, the polls underestimatedPresident Obama’s margin.
Now the unskewers are back, again insisting that pollsters are “using” more Democrats than they should, and that the percentage of Democrats and Republicans should be equal, or that there should be more Republicans. They point to surveys like the recent one from ABC News and The Washington Post, in which 33 percent of registered voters identified as Democrats compared to 27 percent as Republicans. That poll found Hillary Clinton ahead by 8 percentage points.
But let’s say this plainly: The polls are not “skewed.” They weren’t in 2012, and they aren’t now.
The basic premise of the unskewers is wrong. Most pollsters don’t weight their results by party self-identification, which polls get by asking a questionlike “generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a….” Party identification is an attitude, not a demographic. There isn’t some national number from the government that tells us how many Democrats and Republicans there are in the country. Some states collect party registration data, but many states do not. Moreover, party registration is not the same thing as party identification. In a state like Kentucky, for example, there are a lot more registered Democrats than registered Republicans, but more voters identified as Republican in the 2014 election exit polls.
A person’s party identification can shift, and therefore the overall balance between parties does too. Democrats have typically had an advantage in self-identification — a 4 percentage point edge in 2000, a 7-point advantage in2008 and a 6-point edge in 2012, according to exit polls — but they had no advantage in the 2004 election. Since 1952, however, almost every presidential election has featured a Democratic advantage in party identification.
And it’s not crazy to think Democrats will have an advantage in party identification in 2016. With a controversial nominee, many Republicans might not want to identify with the GOP, and may be calling themselves independents.
You should also be skeptical of other attempts to reweight pollsters’ data. One website, LongRoom, claims to “unbias” the polls using “actual state voter registration data from the Secretary of State or Election Division of each state.” The website contends that almost every public poll is biased in favor of Clinton.
Think about what that means: The website is saying that a large number of professional pollsters who make their living trying to provide accurate information — and have a good record of doing so — are all deliberately biasing the polls and aren’t correcting for it. Like many conspiracy theories, that seems implausible.