The polling industry took it on the chin in 2016 and then again – even more glaringly – this year when many foresaw a runaway victory for Joe Biden ahead of an election night that went much differently than predicted.
Florida was just one example among many. The final polls there showed a narrow Biden win when, in fact, President Trump was able to cruise to victory in the state fairly comfortably. The pattern repeated itself over and over with one common thread: Trump’s support was often stronger than predicted.
Adam Meldrum is the president of the Republican media-buying company AdVictory and is pushing an idea he says is a step to fix that.
His approach is something called “social media listening,” with the idea of discerning how you and your neighbors feel about an issue – and how you might vote – based just on what you post on Facebook or Twitter.
In other words, it’s polling without ever directly talking to voters.
Meldrum’s argument: this is an “always-on focus group” that we are just beginning to utilize and could help provide additional context and hint at what the polls might be missing.
“I certainly think it’s a poll complement and not a replacement,” he said in an interview with Yahoo Finance. The polling industry needs to evolve to fit better with the “more fractured electorate,” he said.
‘Polling is not all bad’
The challenge for pollsters and political campaigns is that the U.S. population has long been getting harder to track and the change in voting patterns during the pandemic made things even more complicated.
To be fair, many of the national polls were in the general ballpark when it came to the final results. The final RealClear Politics average of presidential race polls had Biden at 51.2% and Trump at 44%. For Biden, that’s almost exactly where he currently stands as the final votes are being counted. Trump, on the other hand, stands at 47.2% in actual votes cast.
Observers have pointed to several ways that polls missed the Trump support. His supporters often live in rural areas and could be less connected than their urban counterparts. There’s also the theory of the “shy” Trump voter who is unwilling to participate in polls or answer forthrightly.
Whatever the cause, the discrepancy wasn’t enough to flip the overall results in 2020, but it was enough for many state races to go differently than expected. Trump comfortably won a range of states, like Florida, Ohio and Texas, that some pollsters predicted would be close.
Perhaps the most infamous polling miss were the results in Maine. In the Senate race there, every poll showed a lead by Democrat Sara Gideon but then incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins cruised to re-election by 8.9 percentage points.
Meldrum and his competitors are seeking to remake polling. Some firms are changing how they reach voters but then conducting standard surveys using the new contacts lists. One example is a group called Change Research which runs online surveys for many Democratic candidates. They “recruit new participants online” through targeted advertising and then survey them about their preferences.
‘Social media listening’
The other burgeoning approach is called social media listening.
Meldrum’s company partners with a firm called Eyesover to comb through social media posts and analyze the online conversation. They’ve done work for a range of Republican clients, including Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), as well as Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
AdVictory is just one of the competitors in a space trying to prove that analyzing social media can complement traditional polling.
A company called Expert.ai offers similar services to conduct what they call “sentiment analysis” of the social media conversation. It first correctly predicted Brexit and released predictions in October that showed a tighter race between Biden and Trump, which turned out to be correct.
“Polling is not all bad,” Meldrum says. His case is that “the more information you have available to you and the more you can organize it,” the end result “can create a more accurate narrative and more accurate picture of what’s happening out there.”
Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.