You Don't Need To Freak Out Over Every Single Horserace Poll

So quit it.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has lost his polling lead in the 2020 Democratic primary, a new Monmouth University poll finds, sinking into an effective three-way tie with Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Bernie Sanders. (I-Vt.) That’s a striking finding. It’s also sharply at odds with other polling on the primary from this month, most of which find Biden continuing to outpace his rivals by at least a slim margin.

Online Economist/YouGov polling, which has also shown the race tightening in recent weeks, still has Biden clinging to a single-digit edge over his rivals. And surveys that, like Monmouth, are conducted using traditional telephone methodology have Biden up by double-digit margins: Quinnipiac University and Fox News both have Biden ahead of his nearest rival by 11 percentage points, while a CNN/SSRS poll put him up by 14 points.

That doesn’t mean the Monmouth poll is necessarily wrong: It could be the first warning of an imminent sea change. But it does mean it’s currently an outlier. Given its relatively small sample size, it’s also one that carries a significant margin of error.

“It’s important to keep in mind this is just one snapshot from one poll,” Patrick Murray, Monmouth’s polling director, wrote in the survey’s release.


Polling is, by nature, an inexact process. Even a reputable survey with rigorous methodology will occasionally turn up with results that don’t look like anything else out there. That’s one reason it’s so important to look at any survey in the context of all the other data available on the same question. One easy way of doing that: look at polling aggregates, like the ones run by FiveThirtyEight or RealClearPolitics.

The real question here isn’t “Is this individual poll wrong or right?” so much as “Is serially, myopically obsessing over each individual horserace poll as it’s released the best use of anyone’s time?” Which, no, it’s probably not.

That doesn’t mean horserace polls of the Democratic primary are useless right now, but it does mean that they’re best viewed in ensemble, and that they’re still better equipped to provide a broad perspective of the race rather than a precise tally of any candidate’s fortunes. One version of that outlook might be something like this: Biden still leads in most polls, with Warren and Sanders also showing strength, California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg lagging behind, and other candidates rarely managing to pull even 5%. Another version might be: With so many voters still making up their minds or torn between candidates, the real front-runner of the race is still “undecided.”

That uncertainty is Murray’s primary focus as well. “The main takeaway from this poll is that the Democratic race has become volatile,” he wrote, adding that it “does raise warning signs of increased churning in the Democratic nomination contest now that voters are starting to pay closer attention.”

True polling surges and plummets, by nature, don’t tend to be subtle. If there really has been an unequivocal shift in the race, it’s likely to be reflected across more polls in the future.

In the meantime ― I cannot say this enough ― if you keep freaking out about every single horserace poll, you are going to have a miserable 2019.

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