One reason why 2020 election may have been tighter than polls suggested

There was no escaping political polls in recent weeks. In many cases, most of them showed big leads for former Vice President Joe Biden, and in the end, the race could tip in his favor. But you don’t have to look far to see that the polls didn’t come close to getting it right.

“There are a lot of folks who assumed any of the polling errors made in 2016 were accounted for,” said Todd Eberly, the coordinator of the democracy studies program at St. Mary’s College.

After pollsters more accurately called the races in 2018, Eberly said he’s wondering whether the idea of a “shy Trump voter,” something pundits and pollsters scoffed at much of this year, ended up being a real thing again after all.

“There’s really something to this idea of a ‘shy Trump voter’ — folks who don’t want to, for whatever reason, acknowledge that they support Donald Trump,” Eberly said. “They were systematically under-sampled and undercounted. I don’t know necessarily what they do to adjust for that going forward.”

The biggest question, Eberly said, is whether this becomes something unique just to President Donald Trump, or the GOP as a whole.

“Maybe that’s why 2018 was right — because Trump wasn’t actually on the ballot,” Eberly said.


Eberly has been involved with polling himself, though his experience had less to do with politics and more about health care. He recounted how one of the questions was about whether people were getting their regular checkups and physicals with their doctors. Since that’s what you’re supposed to do, people said yes.

“It would routinely overestimate the number of people who had gone to the doctor, because people were saying what they knew they were supposed to say,” Eberly said. “If this happens in political polling, and there are people who are afraid that they’re going to be judged for supporting a controversial person like Donald Trump and they lie, it doesn’t matter that most of Trump’s supporters are proud of it.

“It only takes a few in a sample of 600 to underestimate someone’s support by a couple of percentage points,” Eberly said. “That may be a big challenge that pollsters going forward have to figure out — how in the world we’re going to account for this.”

Of course, all that being said, at the time this story was written, votes are still being counted, and most of those are absentee or mail-in votes that are likely to lean heavily toward Biden’s way.

“When this thing is all said and done, it’s conceivable that Joe Biden wins with over 300 electoral votes and a pretty healthy national vote lead,” Eberly said, “which would actually means the polls weren’t that far off. It’s just there were some folks who were expecting an early night and a landslide, and that clearly is not happening.”

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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