Why So Many Polls Favor Biden | Opinion

As America heads into a critical election that utilizes untested ways of distributing and collecting ballots, Americans are asking themselves: Who should we believe—the polls or our own lying eyes?

The difference is stark. For months, the polls have shown Joe Biden enjoying a consistent, significant lead over President Donald Trump. But every other traditional indicator points to a landslide victory for Trump.

Trump fills stadiums with cheerful, enthusiastic, grateful crowds. Biden stays mostly in his basement, and when he does venture forth, his audiences are tiny. The stock market shows no expectation that the crushing tax and regulatory agendas in Biden's platform are likely to soon become law. Trump tangles daily with reporters about critical issues. Biden allocates a few hours a week to softball questions, promising only that if elected, he will let voters know where he stands.

To all appearances—except one—Trump is firing up enthusiasm for a second term, while Biden has essentially conceded and withdrawn from public scrutiny, hoping that his family scandals will go away. That one exception—or outlier, to use the statistical term—is, of course, the polling.

An "outlier" is a data point inconsistent with the trend. Invariably, an outlier is either an error or a story. An outlier tracked to an error can be corrected or eliminated. It's far more interesting when an outlier tells a story. Something pushed a result in an unexpected direction. What was it?

In the 2020 election, what separates crowd behavior, stock prices and press engagement from the published polls? Answer: The first three are organic phenomena; the public can see the raw data. Polls are manufactured products. Pollsters devise questions, assemble contacts, sample, ignore those who refuse to respond and adjust their raw data—all largely hidden from public view—before sharing their polished final results.

Most pollsters conduct that work on behalf of paying clients. Clients tend to have their own agendas. Those who truly wish to understand public sentiment typically want to leverage that information to their own benefit—not share it with the public. Those who pay for publicly facing polls typically value the ability to shape public opinion, rather than merely to measure it. To understand public polls, it's thus important to consider the incentives driving those clients and the polling firms they hire.

Like all professional service firms, successful polling businesses are those with reputations for keeping clients happy. In stark contrast to the nonpartisanship of genuine science, political pollsters generally decide whether to cultivate left-leaning or right-leaning clients—and then help those clients tell the stories they want the public to hear.

President Trump campaigning in Pennsylvania
President Trump campaigning in Pennsylvania Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Business incentives also push publicly facing pollsters to avoid controversy. Professionals who make the same errors as everyone else rarely pay a price. The costs of being uniquely wrong can be extreme.

Consider a pollster whose data show President Trump enjoying comfortable edges in the popular and Electoral College votes. If those predictions prove correct, the pollster will enjoy bragging rights. Would it be good for business? Maybe. If so, however, the most lucrative contracts would come from clients who want to understand public sentiment—in other words, those who would pull the pollster's subsequent work out of public view and keep it confidential.

Meanwhile, those who stuck with the pack would forge a professional consensus explaining why, despite all appearances, they were not actually wrong. In the 2020 election, for example, the bald allegations of voter suppression already lay the groundwork for such an excuse. Business rarely suffers for pollsters pushing inaccurate conventional wisdom.

If conventional wisdom proves correct, on the other hand, those who pushed it will tout their success and heap scorn on those who dared to stand out. A pollster who failed to call a result so obvious that everyone else saw it would retain little credibility.

Standing apart from the crowd—right or wrong—is bad business for anyone eager to remain a public pollster. Public polls overwhelmingly represent attempts to please clients who want the public to accept and act upon a particular story.

This phenomenon is widespread. Professional service firms all like to claim that their products represent "science," but only those willing to share bad news can make that claim honestly. While some clients do indeed value bad news delivered early and confidentially, no one pays for damaging public announcements.

This failing of America's "experts" explains the growing awareness—on both the Left and the Right—that America's leaders deceive the public. Public experts rarely sell science; they sell science-tinged stories that serve a specific agenda. It's far beyond time to stop letting those stories harm America. Americans must learn to believe their own lying eyes. When they do, their enhanced confidence in their own common sense will reshape broad swaths of American society and culture—for the better.

Bruce Abramson and Jeff Ballabon are Principals at JBB&A Strategies/B2 Strategic and the election-based Battleground20.com. Bruce Abramson is the author of American Restoration: Winning the Second American Civil War.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.