Pollsters Fretting Over a Repeat of the 'Trump Effect' in 2024

(AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

Major pollsters in business and academia are once again beginning to get nervous about their ability to accurately predict the outcome of elections. And once again, the reason is the unpredictability and unreadability of Donald Trump voters.


Both 2016 and 2020 were disasters for the polling industry as the most respected pollsters badly undercounted Republican support and particularly, support for Donald Trump.

The off-year elections of 2018 and 2022 didn’t have these kinds of problems. In fact, the 2022 midterm election had the most accurate polling in any election since 1998.

“We were within the error margin on just about every [poll] we did,” said Jennifer Agiesta, the director of polling and election analytics at CNN. “So I feel pretty good about how these turned out. I would say that does give me some confidence between now and 2024.”

But when Trump is on the ballot, everything goes haywire.


It’s not that Trump is some mystical force. The problems are practical. In 2020, he drew out significant numbers of people who had rarely — if ever — voted and who either weren’t included in polls or refused to participate in them. Trump trashed the polls that found him consistently trailing Biden. This created a feedback loop that made his supporters even less likely to respond, making the polls even more wrong.

Far more than either political party lets on, voters are tribal in their electoral choices. Trump’s “tribe” is still largely invisible to pollsters because they can’t figure out precisely who they are and, more importantly, where they are.


“I don’t think that [Trump’s] comments on polling and the way that he presented his views on polling to his supporters were helpful in terms of response rate in 2020,” added Agiesta, who also began a one-year term as president of the pollsters’ organization at this week’s conference. “But I don’t know if that’s going to be the same in future elections.”

The Democratic polling firm Global Strategy Group initiated a radical new methodological change in their 2022 polls. They were made “more accurate by using voters’ self-reported 2020 general-election presidential vote as a variable — a practice numerous others have also adopted, though it’s still far from universal,” according to Politico.

That, in addition to other adjustments like trying to include voters who aren’t as politically active, was an important discovery, because Global Strategy Group — like pollsters across the public and private campaign worlds — significantly underestimated Republicans in its 2020 polling.

“We think that the stuff that we’ve done to correct for that — between accounting for past vote history in the 2020 election and looking at how important politics is to a person’s identity — are going to be able to capture that and correct for these biases that really bit us in the ass in 2020,” said Baumann, who is a partner at Global Strategy Group.

The phenomenon that led a segment of Trump voters to boycott the polls is similar to other trends, including those picked up in new polling this week from YouGov, which found that Republicans trust almost all media outlets less than Democrats, with the exception of conservative media.


Pollsters are not in the business of reading minds, which makes polling a crap shoot these days. Having a perfect stranger contact you and ask for your opinion about sensitive political and personal subjects like abortion, transgenderism, and race is not going to elicit a lot of cooperation from subjects.

We should expect similar off-kilter results in 2024 and in the future until pollsters can dissect the Trump voter more accurately.


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