How Reliable are Election Polls in Predicting the Outcome of The Presidential Election?

By Emma Smith


With the countdown on to the Nov. 3 presidential election, polls of American voters are getting a lot of attention.

On Sept. 13 a CNN poll of polls (which averages a number of polls together shows Democratic challenger Joe Biden leading the Republican 51% to 43%. The poll of polls includes a Fox News poll conducted from Sept. 7 to 10, a Monmouth University and an Ipsos/Reuters poll both conducted from Sept. 3 to 8 among other polls.

With that being said, polls don’t always accurately predict the result of the election. For example, in 2016, Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton led in the polls and won the popular vote but still lost to Donald Trump in the electoral college vote.

University of Findlay Associate Professor of Psychology, Andrea Matta said in an email interview she does not put much stake in polls, especially after the 2016 election.

“What do I attribute this to? Trump supporters appear to be more ‘closeted’ supporters of Trump, for fear of rejection, criticism, discrimination, etc,” Mata said. “I do not think that supporters of the democratic nominee possess those same fears and therefore are more likely to state in a poll that they are supportive of the democratic candidate.”

It is important to understand what a poll is and how the data that is shown is collected. According to Professor Mata, a poll is a statistic that describes a sub-sample of Americans’ preferences for the two main candidates.

“A descriptive statistic does not have predictive ability. This requires another type of statistic. Furthermore, a poll provides information about the majority vote, but our president is elected using the Electoral College,” Mata said.

Data collection procedures vary which can lead to a variance in the reliability of the data.

“Polls are at the mercy of the data collection procedures that are impacted by range restriction,” Mata said. “How are the pollsters contacting the participants? Via land phones? People who answer calls on their cell phones from numbers they do not know. On social media? All of these procedures have limitations in regard to collecting a diverse sample.”

Psychology studies have shown that some Americans base their votes off of what candidate is leading in the polls, but it is proven that the polls do not always accurately show the winner of the presidential election.

Dr. Mata suggests spending time focusing on other things rather than the election polls.

“The results of the election are not going to be revealed until Nov. 3, regardless of what the polls say,” Mata said. “And the result is going to be what the result is. Therefore, why spend time perseverating on the poll? Additionally, why spend time worrying about who will be the next president? No individual person has control over that. I’d rather spend my time, energy, and other resources on things that are aligned with my personal values: raising my children to be good people, being a loving romantic partner to my husband, being a helpful to family and friends, and equipping my students for meaningful lives and productive careers.”

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