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Here’s the big mistake people keep making about 2020 election forecasts

October 7, 2020 in Blogs

By Cody Fenwick

With the 2020 presidential election already in progress and its conclusion mere weeks away, the polls are starting to look exceptionally good for former Vice President Joe Biden.

A new slate of polls from Quinnipiac University — which does, admittedly, tend to find more favorable numbers for the Democrat — reported Biden with a stunning lead in key swing states, most notably finding him up 11 points in Florida. Even if off by a significant margin — say, 6 points — it would point to a resounding victory for Biden. And recent national polls have shown a major shift toward the Democrat, with Biden up 9.4 points in the most recent RealClearPolitics average. FiveThirtyEight now shows Biden with an 84 percent chance of winning.

We shouldn’t read too much into any particular poll or snapshot in time, but all the figures point to a strong showing by Biden on Nov. 3. But that raises a significant question for many, especially those with the bruises of 2016: could all the polls be wrong?

They could indeed. Systematic polling errors happen for a variety of factors. But that’s why FiveThirtyEight’s forecasting model is useful. It incorporates uncertainty about the polls into its assessment of the race.

That’s why, as FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver pointed out on Wednesday, one of the biggest criticisms of his forecast is so mistaken. He pointed, in particular, to this quote from Chris Kofinis in a recent Vanity Fair interview:

I’m always skeptical of the polls because of how each pollster will model the electorate. Polling is as much an art as a science; unfortunately some artists are really bad, and others ignore the science. Look at the FiveThirtyEight website—they basically look at all the polling out there, and then they come up with a probability model of who is going to win based on that polling. But that model is based on one huge assumption: that the polling isn’t wrong. But if the polling is wrong, then the subsequent model is wrong. I’m skeptical that the polls are right because the electorate is more divided and dysfunctional than ever before in history.

Silver responded on Twitter.

“This is one of the dumbest misconceptions about probabilistic models. The 538 model doesn’t assume that polls are right. It does exactly the opposite: **it tells you the chance that the polls will …read more


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