Alec Giufurta / Sun Senior Editor

The Klarman Hall screen advertises Monday's "Between the Polls" event. Just over two weeks before the election, a panel of government professors and The New York Times national editor examined polls, votes and election trends.

October 22, 2020

Marc Lacey ’87 and Government Profs Examine Polls, Votes and Election Trends

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From “the needle” to misinformation, over 500 participants gathered on Zoom Monday for a panel on the state of election polling and journalism’s perception of voter interest.

Moderated by Prof. Doug Kriner, government, the panel featured Marc Lacey ’87, national editor of The New York Times, and an array of government professors who shared their perspectives on the trends of the looming election. 

Near the beginning of the discussion, Lacey referenced “the needle” — an infamous meter graphic that The New York Times used to display their forecast of the 2016 presidential race victor. The needle was steadfast in its prediction of Hillary Clinton’s win all the way until the end of election day. 

But this time, Lacey hedged his bets: “Let’s not be overconfident. Nobody on the panel or the audience knows who will win.”  

The first question fielded from an audience member asked the panelists whether the notion of a “silent majority” and “hidden Trump voter” was true. According to the theory, many 2016 polls inaccurately pointed towards a Clinton win because Trump backers were less likely to admit support for him to pollsters.

But some professors denied the existence of “hidden supporters,” instead categorizing them more as unrecognized supporters that polling samples simply failed to fully capture. 

“I don’t think the systemic issue that we looked at was that people were unwilling to express their opinion, but rather that they weren’t in the sample,” said Prof. Sergio Garcia-Rios, government. “Many of the people we considered to be hidden Trump voters [in 2016] were also people we considered unlikely voters. Those weren’t on the sample.”

Other panelists, however, reached a different conclusion. Prof. Peter Enns, who directs the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, said that a meaningful portion of voters polled said they had not made up their minds, but, in fact, broke heavily for Trump. 

“In 2016, we found ‘hidden Trump supporters,’ meaning specifically that they were detectable but not revealing their decision,” Enns said. “There were large portions of responses, in some polls almost 15 percent, that, all the way up until a few weeks before the election, would not say whether they were voting for Trump or Clinton.” 

Some high-profile misses in 2016’s state-level polling — Clinton, for instance, led Trump by 6 points in Wisconsin’s pre-election polling, despite ultimately losing there by a point — prompted concern over how election handicappers and publications would handle forecasting this election. But for Lacey’s New York Times, the answer to that question was a decisive one.  

“You might think that after what happened in 2016, The New York Times would back off on polling,” Lacey said. “What happened is the opposite. We’re doing more polling than ever, especially in key states.” 

Even so, however, many news outlets are now being more cautious in their coverage. This trend comes as the spread of misinformation online is increasing in prevalence. Prof. Alexandra Cirone, government, teaches courses specifically on concepts like “fake news” and misinformation in politics, and was quick to explain everyday strategies to combat it.

“Declutter your newsfeed. Help older relatives to narrow down their sources, because at times, they do not know if their sources are dubious,” Cirone said. “Sites now have ways of tracking origins of platforms and uploads to see if they are questionable  And make sure to support local newspapers and sources to encourage good grounded reporting.” 

The panel also emphasized the importance of voter engagement in local politics. Despite the media’s tendency to emphasize national coverage, Prof. Jamila Michener, government, pointed out that down-ballot races — such as judicial elections — can have a surprisingly outsized influence in shaping politics.  

“I think that we’ve seen now that these [local] decisions are critical, and we will now be looking to see not just how the seats are filled, but also the veracity of the process,” Michener, who is also the co-director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity, said. “This way, we won’t have to worry about how biased the court is when the election is finally here.” 

While the professors agreed that polling predictions were healthy, the panelists acknowledged that the unprecedented nature of an election in a pandemic poses unique challenges. With mail-in voting already smashing previous records, prior assumptions about who votes, and how, may no longer prove true.  

“There has been much ado about how early voting is dominated by Democrats, even though we know a lot of Democrats also are concerned about COVID-19 and they’re more likely to want to avoid physical voting,” Michener said. “We may see that Republicans will turn out more on election day because they’re less worried about distancing.”