The validity of research once again came into question following the 2020 U.S. presidential election. I’ve been wondering how research companies polling those who live in the United States could not have predicted a tighter outcome between President Elect Joe Biden and President Donald Trump.
Actually, I’ve been asking myself a similar question since the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, when most research polls predicted Hillary Clinton would win by a landslide. How wrong they were. The race for the White House this year came in closer than many would like to admit, with nearly 73 million U.S. residents voting for President Donald Trump vs. Biden’s 78 million.
While some continue to ask themselves how the election was much closer than polls suggested in several battleground states like Wisconsin and Ohio, I know why after living in middle America for the past two years.
The Pew Research Center late last week released commentary on how the 2020 election polls performed and what it might mean for surveys and studies.
The analysis suggests Democratic voters were more easily reachable or more willing than Republican voters to respond to surveys, and routine statistical adjustments fell short in correcting for the problem.
The share of Republicans in surveys samples smaller, but mostly hard-core Trump supporters. One possible theory, per Pew, is Republicans’ lack of trust in institutions like the news media -- which tend to sponsor much of the polling.
The Pew analysis highlights a major stop point: If polls are systematically under-representing some types of conservatives or Republicans, what ramifications will this have for surveys that measure all kinds of behaviors, from views on the coronavirus pandemic to attitudes toward climate change?
Surveys and real-world behavior are typically off in terms of representing all views.
Not all Trump supporters are honest about their support for him. If that’s the case, do independent thinkers participate in other polls? Are they willing to share their thoughts even if they are different than others?
This creates a huge challenge in measuring attitudes -- not just when it comes to the presidential election, but in terms of how consumers feel about brands and their positions in issues.
Since surveys are used by marketers to understand a specific market, they are sometimes skewed toward that market. Some marketers use the data to validate their market before designing or producing a product. Some use it to determine competitive prices.
Don’t treat one survey as conclusive, but rather as a guideline to dig in even further.
Consider all types of behavior, and understand that people across the U.S. need to feel reassured that their opinions are taken seriously.