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There are a ton of polls for the midterm elections. Here is a guide on how to read them


Policy

Polls often measure whether voters have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of candidates, and ask specific questions testing candidates’ strengths and weaknesses.

Anna Watts/The New York Times

Pre-election polls were beaten after the 2020 election after they underestimated former President Donald Trump’s voting margin by about five percentage points, the highest error in at least 20 years according to the American Association for Public Opinion Research.

One possible cause of the 2020 errors was what experts called nonresponse bias, with Democrats taking part in polls at higher rates than Republicans. Many polls have attempted to measure and correct for partisan nonresponse, but these adjustments are far from perfect, and it will take time to know how effective they are in reducing errors over the long term.

The accuracy of the 2022 polls will not be clear until the votes are counted on November 8. But even imprecise polls can provide useful insights into how and why voters are making their decisions this fall.

Here’s a guide on how to get the most out of the 2022 pre-midterm polls:

1. Don’t sweat the little “tracks” or changes.

While you may see reports of candidates “leading by three points” in individual polls, that doesn’t make much sense other than to say that the contest is highly competitive. The same goes for polls that find a candidate’s support has risen or fallen by a few points from a previous poll. The reason for these small differences is that very few pre-election polls are precise enough to measure such differences.

While the Census Bureau polls 60,000 households a month to measure less than 1% changes in the nation’s unemployment rate, most pre-election polls poll 1,000 voters or fewer.

Even if we (unrealistically) assume that a survey hit a perfect random sample of Americans or registered voters, typical election polls have margins of sampling error between 3 and 5 percentage points. Readers should also remember to apply the margin of error to both candidates in a voter preference question, so the lead actually needs to be nearly twice as large as this margin of error to be statistically significant. And sampling error is just one type of error; nonresponse error and the error associated with how voter preferences are measured are also factors, but are more difficult to estimate.

2. Browse the full results page of a poll.

News stories and poll reports focus on the most trending results from a poll, including who is leading overall and among key groups. But polls ask many other questions that can give you a better understanding of voter attitudes.

You can often find more opinion questions by clicking on the full survey results. You might find opinions on campaign issues like inflation, abortion, or climate change. The Post’s polling archive links to aggregate results and crosstabs by group for all of our polls.

3. Watch what voters think of candidates.

Polls often measure whether voters have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of candidates, and ask specific questions testing candidates’ strengths and weaknesses.

These results illustrate how voters are reacting to the campaign and help explain why candidates are leading or trailing in overall support, as well as the challenges they face in the final weeks of the campaign.

Favorable ratings can be an indicator of which candidate undecided voters will turn to, but they’re also important for understanding whether they support their preferred candidate because they like them — or because they don’t. their opponent.

For example, a CNN poll from Pennsylvania released on Monday found double-digit unfavorable ratings for Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz and Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. Meanwhile, Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman received lackluster favor ratings and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro was in double-digit positive territory. Shapiro led Mastriano among likely voters by 15 points in the gubernatorial race, and Fetterman held a narrower six-point advantage over Oz in the U.S. Senate race.

In late September, Aaron Blake of the Post compared the favorable ratings of Democratic and Republican candidates in 20 polls, finding Republican candidates trailing on this metric in most key states.

4. See which supporters are the most motivated.

Turnout reached its highest level in a century in the last two general elections. But even so, half of eligible voters did not vote in the 2018 midterm elections. Pre-election polls typically ask respondents how likely they are to vote, providing a useful indicator of the most determined types of voters. to vote.

In a national Washington Post-ABC News poll last month, 76% of registered voters who supported Republicans for Congress said they were certain to vote, compared to 74% of those who supported Democrats, a statistically insignificant difference. . Other recent polls have shown a slight Republican advantage in motivation to vote.

In 2018, when Democrats took control of the House, the last post-ABC poll before the election also found relative parity on this measure, with 83% of voters backing Republicans and 79% backing Republicans. backed Democrats saying they were certain to vote. or had already done so.

But in 2014, when Republicans widened their majority in the House, Republicans had an 11-point advantage on this issue – with 72% of their party’s supporters saying they were certain to vote (or had voted early) against it. 61% of Democrats.

5. Compare the results to polls from previous elections.

Comparing the new polls with those from previous elections may indicate significant changes among different groups of voters.

The Post’s Sabrina Rodriguez recently pointed to recent polls showing Democrat Stacey Abrams averaging 83% support among black voters in the gubernatorial election in Georgia. That’s an overwhelming majority, but that’s down from 2018, when Election Day polls showed between 93 and 94 percent of black voters backed her, according to AP VoteCast and polls. exit from the network. CNN’s Harry Enten found a similar trend in national polls, with Democrats receiving 10 points less support among black voters than in 2020.

The 2018 midterm elections saw women backing Democratic House candidates over Republican House candidates by 19 percentage points, the largest margin in exit polling history. Democrats held a smaller eight-point advantage among female voters in a September post-ABC poll, despite signs that women have reacted strongly to the Supreme Court’s ruling eliminating abortion rights.

Each new poll generally adds more information to our understanding of public opinion. But there is a substantial amount of random variation in the polls – in addition to methodological differences – and it’s worth being skeptical of surveys showing a markedly different result than other recent data.

It is possible that such a poll will pick up a significant shift in voter attitudes, though more often than not they will remain outliers. Poll averages are a useful solution to this, incorporating information from multiple polls while smoothing out bumps. But if most polls overestimate a party’s support, an average of polls may not correct that.

Finally, beware of polls sponsored by candidates or pressure groups. While these polls are sometimes conducted using quality methods, they are often selectively published when the results are beneficial to their preferred candidate, unlike independent polls commissioned by news organizations or other nonpartisan sponsors. .



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