A Rutgers Expert’s Guide to Understanding 2020’s Campaign Polls

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.

“Public opinion polls are important for an informed democracy, but it’s important to understand each poll’s level of uncertainty. In 2016, the nationwide polls correctly predicted Secretary Clinton as the winner of the popular vote – but predicting President Trump as winner of the Electoral College depended more on statewide polling, which had one of the largest errors in decades,” Koning said. “Voters this year should remember that polls are a scientific way of understanding public opinion, while being aware of each poll’s methodology and margin of error.”

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.

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