Pollster Nate Silver explains how corporate media is making the same mistakes in 2020 as were made in 2016

Pollster Nate Silver explains how corporate media is making the same mistakes in 2020 as were made in 2016
Hillary Clinton, ABC News Screengrab

After Donald Trump defeated a long list of well-known Republicans in the 2016 GOP presidential primary and went on to defeat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the general election, some Trump supporters vowed to never trust pollsters again. But according to pollster and FiveThirtyEight.com's Nate Silver, the problem isn’t pollsters — it is how the media and pundits interpret polls. And during an interview with The Atlantic’s David A. Graham, Silver asserted that the media are misinterpreting polls on the 2020 election just as they misinterpreted the polls in 2016.

In 2016, Graham writes, Silver “initially underestimated Donald Trump, dismissing his chances of winning the Republican nomination. It was a rare embarrassment, one that Silver attributed to losing sight of a fundamental principle: trust the polls. Trump had consistently led in surveys of GOP voters, but Silver had succumbed to the conventional wisdom that the interloper couldn’t possibly prevail.”

Journalists, Silver told Graham, shouldn’t avoid reporting on polls. But there is room for improvement when it comes to how they report and analyze them.

“I think the 2016 campaign exposed whatever your bad habits were as a newsroom,” Silver told Graham. “But no one actually seems to have learned very many lessons in 2016.”

As Silver sees it, Trump’s presidency doesn’t hurt the credibility of pollsters. If anything, it validates them.

“In some ways,” Silver told Graham, “polling is the only way in which the Trump presidency has been normal.”

The media, Graham notes, often place a heavy emphasis on “dispatches from the Heartland” — that is, interviews with voters in Ohio or Minnesota in a local diner, mall or supermarket. But Silver stressed that while that type of reporting is all well and good, polling still offers the type of hard data that journalists need.

Silver told Graham, “The impulse maybe isn’t bad. But you know, polls are also a way of talking to voters.”

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