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How polling has changed since the 2016 election

Democratic Congressional candidates now hold a nine-point advantage over Republicans, according to the latest poll from the PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist. But can polls be trusted? In 2016, polls in key states showed Hillary Clinton winning handily. Donald Trump won all three. Judy Woodruff discusses with NPR’s Domenico Montanaro and Patrick Murray of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With just a few days until the midterm elections, the most recent "PBS NewsHour"/NPR/Marist poll showed Democratic congressional candidates with a nine-point advantage over Republicans.

    So, just how much attention to give polls became a point of contention after the 2016 presidential election. In 2016, national polls showed Hillary Clinton beating Donald Trump by a little more than three points. She won the popular vote by about two points.

    But in three key states that put Trump over the top in the Electoral College, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, polls showed Clinton winning by between four and six points. Trump won all three by less than 1 percent.

    So to explore how polling has changed in the last two years, I'm joined by Domenico Montanaro. He is the lead political editor for NPR. And Patrick Murray, he's the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

    And we welcome both of you back to the "NewsHour."

    So, Domenico, I want to look back for just a moment. Looking at 2016, a lot of people were very quick to criticize the polls and say they were all wrong.

    You were talking to us today and saying, no, as we just pointed out, it wasn't the national polls. It's what happened in the states. What do you mean by that?

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Well, there's a couple of different things that are going on here.

    I mean, the fact of the matter is you have a lot of national news organizations who are still pretty flush with cash who are able to pay for pretty good polling across all of the states, right? And you have, like, a good representative sample of what's happening.

    But when it comes to the states and congressional districts and the amount of money that can be spent by local television stations, local newspapers, they're — those are drying up and being more difficult to be able to pay for good polling.

    And I think we saw that with Wisconsin and Michigan in particular in 2016, where you didn't have that many polls. And, frankly, I will just say, I think people should pump the brakes on what they think the expectation should be on Tuesday, because, you know, when you look at the states, you know, we have dozens of less polls than we had in 2014 and 2010.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes. And I want to ask you about that.

    But just quickly, I want to turn to you, Patrick, on this question of what went wrong in 2016. Is there something else that happened that — two years ago that we — that we should be factoring in to today?

  •  Patrick Murray:

    Right.

    Judy, as you mentioned, it was the state polls where we saw the problem. And it wasn't in every state, but it was in the states that mattered.

    So there were some states where the polls were really accurate, but they weren't the ones that were up for grabs. It was Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, those types of states.

    What we saw is — one thing is, education was such a factor in breaking this election two years ago, meaning your education level determined whether you were going to vote Democrat or Republican, in a way that we hadn't seen before.

    And polls hadn't made a lot of corrections in the past for that, because it didn't matter as much. That was one factor that added a couple of points of error to those polls. Other factors where, we weren't exactly sure who was going to vote in that in that race.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  •  Patrick Murray:

    Some Clinton voters who were polled didn't show up. There were some Trump voters who were not polled at all because they just didn't want to talk about this election.

    So that's the challenge that we have in 2018. I mean, we can fix the demographics, but it's the other parts that are tough.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Domenico, are — and I realize that Patrick is the pollster here. You're the one who looks at — spends a lot of time looking at the polls.

    But, Domenico, are things being done differently now to avoid this kind of thing happening again?

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Well, I'm glad you have Patrick on, because, to be perfectly honest, one of the innovations that I have really appreciated in reading Monmouth's polls has been how transparent the polling has been.

    They have released various models of what the race would look like, what various races would look like, based on different kind of shapes of the — of the electorate, if they were to turn out to be that way, which is not something we had seen before.

    We have seen news organizations that do help conduct polling, like The New York Times, for example, doing their live polls. I think maybe they do too many of them, to be honest, but in showing people in a transparent way how polling works, and that these things are not as specific as people try to make them out to be.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    A six-point lead is not really a six-point lead. That's anywhere from three to nine points with margins of error generally.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so, Patrick, are you doing things differently this time? Were their lessons learned?

  •  Patrick Murray:

    Right, exactly.

    Domenico mentioned one of the innovations that we introduced at Monmouth, which was looking at the way turnout can be different, because we can't predict turnout. We don't know who's going to vote on Election Day. But we can tell you what it would look like if certain different types of voters came out.

    And we're trying to convey that level of uncertainty. We have a general sense of what what's going to happen in terms of ups or downs, that the Democrats are certainly doing much better than they have been before. We just don't know how many of those seats they're going to win.

    What we can do, and what polling should be doing is telling you why. What's the mood of the electorate? What are the issues that are important? Why are the Democrats doing better? And get away from the idea of trying to predict exactly what the margin is going to be.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Get away from — get away from the horse race.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, just a little bit under two minutes left.

    I just want to ask both of you, what should we then be trusting and believing and focusing on in today's polls? And what should we be less confident about?

    Domenico?

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Well, I'm really glad, first of all, that some places have gotten away from those forecasting needles, for example, because I think that that was a little misleading for people, because you had people refreshing 538, for example, saying, oh, Hillary Clinton has a 65 percent chance of winning. That must mean she's definitely going to win.

    No, that usually means that, if that election were run three times, that she'd when two of those three. That's a little bit different than saying she has a 65-35 lead. So that's one thing. I'm certainly glad that was done away with.

    And I think that, overall, people should be watching trends. And when you look at the trends in our polling, for example, of President Trump's approval rating, it has not budged since he was inaugurated. It's essentially moved anywhere from three to six points, from the high 30s to mid-40s.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    And this election is essentially baked in.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, finally, Patrick Murray, what advice do you have for all of us who look at polls?

  •  Patrick Murray:

    Yes.

    Look past the horse race. Look to the issue questions. Try to find out if there's a story being told. That's what we're trying to do. In fact, in this race, one of the stories that we're seeing is that there are different issues playing out in different regions of the country.

    So, when we're looking at this national blue wave that everybody's predicting, it's not a national wave. It's a Northeastern wave and a Midwestern wave and a Western and a Sun Belt. And they're all going to play out a little differently. And polling can tell us that story.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it may wash us all away.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Patrick Murray, Domenico Montanaro.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    Let's hope not.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you both very much. We appreciate it.

  • Domenico Montanaro:

    You're welcome, as always. Thank you.

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