Beyond the Horse Races, There is Deeper and Broader Value in Public Polling

This was published as an opinion column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on November 15, 2020.

On August 11, 2020, the Marquette Law School Poll released a round of results that included some remarkable findings: 35% of Wisconsin voters planned to vote early by mail, and 81% of those voters planned to vote for Democratic candidate Joe Biden for president. Another 46% were planning to vote in person on election day, and 67% of them planned to vote for Republican candidate Donald Trump. And 12% were planning to vote early in-person and were pretty evenly split.

The numbers didn’t attract much attention from commentators. But they gave a big heads-up about what was likely to unfold nearly three months later, after the polls closed on November 3. There were going to be unprecedented numbers of absentee voters, and they were going to vote overwhelmingly for Biden. And a majority of in-person election day votes would go for Trump.

This became a key to understanding election night and week, not only in Wisconsin, but in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and several other states. Based on in-person voting, Trump took the lead in each one on election night. Results from absentee votes were reported more slowly. Biden won by big margins among absentees, and Trump’s early lead shrank and then disappeared.

This early insight from the Marquette poll illuminated how and why things were happening and were going to happen, beyond simply who was going to win. And beyond the election, a poll such as ours sheds light on a wide array of issues that are shaping life in Wisconsin. We, in effect, give all the people of the state a voice beyond the bottom line.

The horse races get huge attention. By that standard, 2020 was not a great year for pollsters. In many polls close to election day, Biden led nationwide or in specific states by substantial margins—eight to eleven points, in many cases. The actual outcome, of course, especially in the so-called battleground states, was much closer.

The criticism of polling that resulted was compounded by the fact that in 2016, the nearly unanimous picture painted by polls was that Hillary Clinton was going to beat Trump, which, of course, did not happen. So news stories and commentaries pronounced the quality of polling to be lacking and the future of polling to be in question.

Permit me to disagree.

For one thing, the Marquette poll’s presidential “horse race” numbers weren’t that off. Every poll includes a “margin of error,” which is to say that results are regarded as likely to be within a range of numbers. The Marquette poll released six days before the election had Biden notably closer than other major Wisconsin polls: specifically, with a 5 percentage-point lead, with a margin of error of 4.4 points. The actual result gave Biden a victory margin of 0.6 of a percent—which is 4.4 points lower than 5.

And it deserves attention that our poll included figures for what could be the case if there was a higher than expected total vote. Biden then led by 4 points, more comfortably within the margin of error.

Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, said that in a dozen statewide final elections, going back to 2012, the poll has been off on the final results by an average of 2.2 points. It’s an awfully good record.

And horse race questions are only a small part of the work of the Marquette Law School Poll. The rest of the poll sheds light on much more of what people in Wisconsin think.

“The broader policy and social issues, to me, are by far the more important thing,” Franklin said. “We’ve asked over 1,400 different public policy questions in the nine years we’ve been doing the Marquette Law School Poll.”

How are people dealing with COVID-19? What do people think of the protests that broke out after the death in May of George Floyd and of racial justice issues in general, and how has that thinking changed with subsequent events? In person or online, what do people, especially parents, want to see as the way of providing children education this year? Those are examples of important survey questions from recent months.

Franklin was asked in one post-election interview if polls should be ignored. He answered that political parties and interest groups will continue to poll and to use the results in shaping their strategies. If you want only groups such as those to have handles on what the public thinks, “that’s the world you’re asking for without public polling.”

Polls are not perfect, as everyone has seen, and results should be regarded with caution. But, when done well, do polls help any and all of us to understand people’s opinions? People’s lives? And what people want to see ahead? Yes. Yes. And yes.


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