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What presidential polls tell us and what was learned from 2016

Published: Oct. 15, 2020 at 9:57 AM CDT
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DAVENPORT, Iowa (KWQC) - Several Iowa presidential polls place President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden in a statistical tie ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

A September Des Moines Register-Mediacom poll has both candidates tied at 47 percent.

Although then-candidate Donald Trump easily won Iowa in 2016 by nine percentage points, many polls suggest a far closer contest this year.

“It’s just a hard thing to do, to make a really accurate guess about how people will behave in the future and without talking to every voter there’s an inherent uncertainty to your estimates,” Brian Gaines, political science professor for the Institute for Government & Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, said.

After the 2016 election, where many national polls predicted Hillary Clinton as the winner, the accuracy of polls were questioned, but Gaines said the biggest mistake made then was using expectations from previous elections.

“White voters who didn’t have a college education turned out in higher numbers than they thought. Not all across the country, but in critical states. Michigan and Pennsylvania... a lot of Midwestern states. The weights were wrong. Not because the pollsters misunderstood the old elections but because they assumed 2016 would be like 2008, 2012,” he said.

Gaines also added that too much attention was placed on national polling, when more focus should have been placed on state and local polls.

“A lot of people thought well Clinton has to win this election, she’s so far ahead in the national polls. The national polls aren’t really measuring the right thing so I say you just want to look at it state by state,” he said.

One reason making polling challenging this election is the ongoing pandemic. With more people voting early and by mail, instead of in person on Election Day, turnout could be different than previous election years.

“You don’t know what the electorate looks like until after the election. You have an expectation of who’s going to vote, but you might be wrong,” Gaines said.

As election day inches its way closer, and with six electoral votes at stake, the nation’s eyes will once again be on battleground state Iowa.

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