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Polling during a pandemic: Pollsters face many unknowns heading into presidential election

  • Election 2020:
    Election 2020:  The COVID-19 pandemic will alter the voting landscape dramatically, as Americans must decide between voting in person or through the mail. In turn, that will complicate the polling process as well.  Illustration by Rob Turner
  • New course:
    New course:  W&M Government Professor Mackenzie Israel-Trummel teaches a course on survey and polling analysis.  Submitted photo
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The COVID-19 pandemic presents a challenge to those who plan to vote in the Nov. 3 presidential election, as well as for those who want to study voter behavior.

In-person voting is expected to decline as Americans continue to follow physical distancing measures. Some who normally vote at the polls will instead vote through the mail, while others may decide to not vote at all.

Political scientists expect these changes to make it harder to predict voter outcomes.

“It’s incredibly volatile,” said William & Mary Government Assistant Professor Mackenzie Israel-Trummel, who teaches a course on survey and polling analysis. “There’s so much we don’t know.”

Israel-Trummel, who is in her first year at W&M after spending the previous five years at the University of Oklahoma, teaches a course to train students as survey researchers. Students who take the course will learn “the rich context in which social science is conducted, through the lens of a more active form of learning,” the professor said.

Conducting the course during a pandemic and in the lead up to a presidential election certainly makes things more interesting for Israel-Trummel and her students.

“One of the things we're going to talk about this semester is all of the unknowns about polling and research right now, particularly when we're thinking about trying to understand how the election is going to go and who's going to win,” Israel-Trummel said. “How hard is it to make those predictions right now, because there's so little that we know?”

Models that researchers used to understand voting behaviors in the past may not be as effective during a pandemic. Not only will in-person voting decline, but the methods in which researchers collect voting data will change as well, Israel-Trummel said.

Most survey research, with the exception of some exit polling, is done via the internet now.

“People might be afraid to show up,” Israel-Trummel said. “There’s a lot we don’t know right now in trying to understand who’s going to vote on Election Day. This is a really different situation than we’ve ever faced before, which makes it hard to predict and also really concerning for people in the polling world, because if they get this wrong, is it going to erode faith in democratic practice and in data generally?”

In 2016, pre-election polls showed Hillary Clinton ahead of Donald Trump in key battleground states that ultimately turned the election in Trump’s favor. That has led some critics to question the accuracy of polls before the votes come in.

Israel-Trummel says voter turnout contributed to the miscalculations in those critical states, and that has to be taken into account even more this year, particularly during a pandemic.

“For a lot of people, 2016 was sort of a wake-up call to pay less attention to who’s ahead in national polls, or even who’s ahead in particular states, and think a little bit more deeply about what the turnout actually looks like in those places,” Israel-Trummel said.

“And if models aren’t taking that into account appropriately, and if we aren’t good at estimating who’s likely to go cast a ballot, we can be really wrong about what’s going to happen on Election Day.”

The pandemic will alter the landscape dramatically, as Americans must decide between voting in person or through the mail.

In turn, that will complicate the polling process as well.

“This is just a completely different landscape than we’ve faced for a presidential election when people are afraid to be outside,” Israel-Trummel said. “Voting in person is really a fear-inducing thing for a lot of people. But then there's also concerns about whether mail-in ballots be counted, and so I think all of those factors just make it very uncertain what we even know about the composition of the electorate on Election Day. I think it's making most people who look at polls nervous about trying to make any sort of predictions because of just the incredible number of unknowns this year.

The City of Williamsburg is providing curbside voting and a dropbox for absentee ballots to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and make voters feel safe casting their ballots. On Friday, Sept. 18, the city will begin in-person early voting, and absentee ballots will be mailed to persons who have requested to vote by mail.

In Israel-Trummel’s survey and polling analysis course, students will participate in the full scope of a survey research project. This includes learning the theory of survey research, developing survey measures, fielding a national survey, writing code for data analysis, and writing research papers using the data students have helped gather.

It's a super hands-on class,” Israel-Trummel said. “The goal is that from the beginning to the end, they start as government majors or international relations majors or whatever they are, and by the end they are truly participating in political science research. They will go from being just students to being producers of knowledge.”

Students will learn to code in statistical software and analyze the data, as well as how to program a survey for distribution while minimizing errors. They will also develop writing skills to produce a final paper and learn to adhere to the ethical standards expected by researchers to work with human subjects.

“Taking this course during a presidential election year has definitely added to my enthusiasm for the course,” said Leslie Davis ’21, who is interested in pursuing a career in survey research after graduation. “As part of the class, we are developing an original survey that will be fielded on a national sample.

“Having that kind of control to design a survey during a presidential election year will allow us to focus on issues and topics we are especially interested in this November, which is a great opportunity as student researchers.”