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Take polls seriously, not literally

To the editor:

There is always a tendency to disregard polls through motivated reasoning. When partisans are down in the polls, they invent excuses for why the numbers are wrong. When they are up in the polls, they try to downplay it. They want to avoid depressing their voter turnout. But campaign insiders do take polls seriously, just not literally. Polls are often off by a few points.

It is worse this year because you will hear from both sides, “What about 2016?” This sounds convincing, given Trump’s upset victory. The problem is that it is wrong.

In the week before the election, Hillary Clinton had under a +2% lead in the RealClearPolitics polling averages. It was absurd to regard her as inevitably winning when her lead was within the margin of error. Her numbers recovered only slightly. They had her at +3.2% on Election Day while she actually got +2.1% in the total vote count.

The state polls had larger but historically normal error. There was an abnormally high number of undecided voters. They kept changing their minds because of news stories, and the last week of the news cycle was bad for Hillary. Trump overperformed by just enough with correlated demographics in the Midwest to win the Electoral College.

Nate Silver’s probability model at FiveThirtyEight had the election at close to coin-flip odds at times. In the last week before Election Day, it was giving a 35% chance of Trump winning. If this sounds like “calling it” for Hillary, that is not the right way to understand it. Those are the same odds as playing Russian roulette with two bullets.

Ignoring reality is dangerous for democracy. Biden has held a +7% or higher lead for almost half a year. It is strikingly stable regardless of the news and will likely remain so, unless something drastic happens in the next few weeks. When all the votes are counted, they will be similar to the final polls.

It is important to remember this because Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to vote by absentee ballot this year. Those take longer to count. Media outlets will call this the “red mirage” on election night.

If Trump is still polling this badly on Election Day, the mirage will disappear as more votes are counted. This will not be “voter fraud.” It will be reality. But this might take weeks. Absentee ballots are also rejected at higher rates, which could become a major problem.

When we hear bad arguments in November about overturning the results in battleground states because they are “unknowable,” or how the Constitution allows state legislatures to choose whomever they want, or sinister rhetoric about being “a republic and not a democracy,” or if the attorney general has the gall to interfere, this will all need to be completely rejected.

This must be done by both parties, whether the bad actor is Trump or Biden. Otherwise we will find ourselves on the path toward not bothering with elections at all.

Robert Schnibbe

Saranac Lake

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