The goal of a pre-election poll is to predict which candidate will win an election and by how much. Pollsters work towards this goal by 1) obtaining a representative sample of respondents, 2) determining which candidate a respondent will vote for, and 3) predicting the chances each respondent will take the time to vote.

All three of these steps involve error. It is the first one, obtaining a representative sample of respondents, which has changed the most in the past decade or so.

It is the third characteristic that separates pre-election polling from other forms of polling and survey research. Statisticians must predict how likely each person they interview will be to vote. This is called their “Likely Voter Model.”

As I state in POLL-ARIZED, this is perhaps the most subjective part of the polling process. The biggest irony in polling is that it becomes an art when we hand the data to the scientists (methodologists) to apply a Likely Voter Model.

It is challenging to understand what pollsters do in their Likely Voter Models and perhaps even more challenging to explain.

An example from baseball might provide a sense of what pollsters are trying to do with these models.

Suppose Mike Trout (arguably the most underappreciated sports megastar in history) is stepping up to the plate. Your job is to predict Trout’s chances of getting a hit. What is your best guess?

You could take a random guess between 0 and 100%. But, since that would give you a 1% chance of being correct, there must be a better way.

A helpful approach comes from a subset of statistical theory called Bayesian statistics. This theory says we can start with a baseline of Trout’s hit probability based on past data.

For instance, we might see that so far this year, the overall major league batting average is .242. So, we might guess that Trout’s probability of getting a hit is 24%.

This is better than a random guess. But, we can do better, as Mike Trout is no ordinary hitter.

We might notice there is even better information out there. Year-to-date, Trout is batting .291. So, our guess for his chances might be 29%. Even better.

Or, we might see that Trout’s lifetime average is .301 and that he hit .333 last year. Since we believe in a concept called regression to the mean, that would lead us to think that his batting average should be better for the rest of the season than it is currently. So, we revise our estimate upward to 31%.

There is still more information we can use. The opposing pitcher is Justin Verlander. Verlander is a rare pitcher who has owned Trout in the past – Trout’s average is just .116 against Verlander. This causes us to revise our estimate downward a bit. Perhaps we take it to about 25%.

We can find even more information. The bases are loaded. Trout is a clutch hitter, and his career average with men on base is about 10 points higher than when the bases are empty. So, we move our estimate back up to about 28%.

But it is August. Trout has a history of batting well early in and late in the season, but he tends to cool off during the dog days of summer. So, we decide to end this and settle on a probability of 25%.

This sort of analysis could go on forever. Every bit of information we gather about Trout can conceivably help make a better prediction for his chances. Is it raining? What is the score? What did he have for breakfast? Is he in his home ballpark? Did he shave this morning? How has Verlander pitched so far in this game? What is his pitch count?

There are pre-election polling analogies in this baseball example, particularly if you follow the probabilistic election models created by organizations like FiveThirtyEight and The Economist.

Just as we might use Trout’s lifetime average as our “prior” probability, these models will start with macro variables for their election predictions. They will look at the past implications of things like incumbency, approval ratings, past turnout, and economic indicators like inflation, unemployment, etc. In theory, these can adjust our assumptions of who will win the election before we even include polling data.

Of course, using Trout’s lifetime average or these macro variables in polling will only be helpful to the extent that the future behaves like the past. And therein lies the rub – overreliance on past experience makes these models inaccurate during dynamic times.

Part of why pollsters missed badly in 2020 is unique things were going on – a global pandemic, changed methods of voting, increased turnout, etc. In baseball, perhaps this is a year with a juiced baseball, or Trout is dealing with an injury.

The point is that while unprecedented things are unpredictable, they happen with predictable regularity. There is always something unique about an election cycle or a Mike Trout at bat.

The most common question I am getting from readers of POLL-ARIZED is, *“will the pollsters get it right in 2024?” *My answer is that since pollsters are applying past assumptions in their model, they will get it right to the extent that the world in 2024 looks like the world did in 2020, and I would not put my own money on it.

I make a point in POLL-ARIZED that pollsters’ models have become too complex. While in theory, the predictive value of a model never gets worse when you add in more variables, in practice, this has made these models uninterpretable. Pollsters include so many variables in their likely voter models that many of their adjustments cancel each other out. They are left with a model with no discernable underlying theory.

If you look closely, we started with a probability of 24% for Trout. Even after looking at a lot of other information and making reasonable adjustments, we still ended up with a prediction of 25%. The election models are the same way. They include so many variables that they can cancel out each other’s effects and end up with a prediction that looks much like the raw data did before the methodologists applied their wizardry.

This effort is better spent at getting better input for the models by investing in generating the trust needed to increase the response rates we get to our surveys and polls. Improving the quality of our data input will increase the predictive quality of the polls more than coming up with more complicated ways to weight the data.

Of course, in the end, one candidate wins, and the other loses, and Mike Trout either gets a hit, or he doesn’t, so the actual probability moves to 0% or 100%. Trout cannot get 25% of a hit, and a candidate cannot win 79% of an election.

As I write this, I looked up the last time Trout faced Verlander. It turns out Verlander struck him out!