Election polls measure public opinion at a static moment in time.
Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Pew Research found that most polls “overstated Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump in the national vote for president, and in some states incorrectly indicated that Biden would likely win or that the race would be close when it was not.” This led to increased skepticism around polling. After all, if polls could be that wrong, how could they be reliable at all?
While there are limitations and errors that occur in polls, polls are not meant to be an exact measure. The New York Times said, “Polls are not exact measurements, like the diameter of the Earth or the speed of light. They are imprecise estimates — and even the classic margin of error seriously understates the actual degree of uncertainty.” Polls measure public opinion at a particular point in time and can be used to speak about trends in public opinion more broadly.
Polls are “a glimpse at where people stand at a given moment in time,” according to PBS NewsHour. Polls survey a representative sample of the U.S. population about key issues and politicians. While polls do aim to get a representative sample, they do not always accomplish that.
The Cook Political Report said that 85% of undecided voters in 2016 did not make their final decision about who to vote for until the last week of the election. While polls can show accurately a static moment in time, the news cycle changes quickly and new issues arise that can significantly impact and change people’s minds.
The New York Times has said that some midterm polls this time around will likely be more accurate in terms of forecasting the result than the 2020 election polls because the response rate by political party is more balanced now. While polls might not be able to tell the public the definitive results of the election, they can shed light on general trends.