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Interpreting polls correctly can help inform voters as the presidential election nears.

Four years after the presidential election surprised nearly everyone who followed public opinion polls, it is critical for 2020 voters to have a better understanding of how polling works and what they should look for as the election cycle heats up and the barrage of polls increase. 

Ashley Koning, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll and an expert on American public opinion polling, shared tips for voters on how to bring critical thinking to bear when reading poll results during this election cycle.

“The polls this election cycle have so far shown a steady and healthy lead for former Vice President Joe Biden over President Trump, but a lot can still happen between now and Election Day,” Koning said. “Pollsters have been able to rectify some of the mishaps from 2016, such as weighting for education, which proved to be a crucial factor in Trump support. But there are a number of other things that pollsters can’t control - like late deciders, who will turn out versus stay home, and whether or not respondents are divulging their true vote intentions.

“We must remember that while polls are a scientific way of understanding public opinion, they are also tools based on probability and uncertainty and are a snapshot in time of what the public is thinking. Their importance to democracy lies in their ability to represent the voice of the people and explain why individuals feel and act the way they do - not to predict the horserace weeks and months in advance."  

Koning, an assistant research professor at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics and the director of the institute’s Center for Public Interest Polling, discusses the future of polling in this video.

Her guidelines for savvy poll consumers include:

  • Look for polls that fully disclose details about the polling entity’s mission, methods and sponsors. If there is no disclosure, ignore the poll.
  • Find out what questions the pollsters asked. The ways questions are worded, ordered and framed can strongly affect the responses.
  • Pay attention to who and how many people were interviewed, the margin of error, and how the data were weighed. Any of these can impact the seemingly clear-cut percentages mentioned in news reports.
  • Understand that any one poll is just an estimate. Looking at a range of polls on a given topic gives a better sense of public sentiment.
  • Be vigilant about how you interpret pre-election polling. Polls are snapshots in time and exercises in probability. Embrace their uncertainty and acknowledge their range of error, rather than mistaking them as inevitable predictors of what will happen – especially in close races with thin margins.