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The Polling Crisis Is a Catastrophe for American Democracy

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The Polling Crisis Is a Catastrophe for American Democracy

If public-opinion data are unreliable, we’re all flying blind.

The Atlantic,

5 min read
3 take-aways
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In the United States presidential election, the pollsters were the decisive losers.

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Prior to the 2020 United States elections, polls suggested former Vice President Joe Biden would defeat President Donald Trump in a landslide, that Democrats would gain control of the Senate and add seats to their House majority. Though Joe Biden won, polls proved inaccurate at every level, to a degree that raised wide questions from voters, politicians and pundits regarding polling’s methodology and value. As David A. Graham writes in The Atlantic, this election is a disaster for the polling industry. But, he suggests, the real disaster is that without reliable polls there are few methods other than elections to determine what Americans – or people anywhere – think about crucial issues.


Polling inaccuracies in the 2020 elections were a calamity for the polling industry and the media.

Leading up to the election in November 2020, polls indicated that the Democratic candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, would breeze to victory over Republican incumbent President Donald Trump. That didn’t happen. Early on, the presidential election proved too close to call, and it looks unlikely that Democrats will win back the Senate – as of this writing, the Georgia run-off race will determine the Senate majority – and Democrats lost seats in the House.

The 2020 polling failures were a calamity for polling organizations and for the numerous media companies that organize, interpret and present polls to the public. This poses an “existential” crisis for pollsters and creates other problems as well. If polling is unreliable or lacks public trust, the media and other agencies have no way of depicting what Americans think...

About the Author

David A. Graham, a staff writer at The Atlantic, previously edited its politics section and reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal and The National.

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