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The Polls For This Election Were Off Again. Is This The End Of The Industry?


We may not know the full results of the presidential election yet. We do know this; the polls were wrong again. Many predicted a near landslide for Joe Biden and a rosy outlook for Democrats in the House and Senate. Instead, Democrats lost a seat in the House. They're still fighting for the Senate. And, of course, the presidential race will be decided by thin margins in battleground states. Republican pollster Frank Luntz called this election, quote, "devastating for my industry."

I admire you for joining us now, Frank. Thanks very much for being with us.

FRANK LUNTZ: I believe in accountability, and I believe that if the public is ever to have faith and trust in my profession that you got to be candid with what went wrong, and you got to figure out how to make it go right.

SIMON: What did go wrong?

LUNTZ: I think that Trump - not I think, I know, and I was criticized by Rush Limbaugh, who did not understand what I was saying - Trump people don't like to talk to pollsters. Trump voters think that their opinions will be manipulated. They think that they will be ridiculed. And so when a polling outlet either calls them or sends them an email to cooperate, a good number of them refuse to do so. And, in fact, polling on election night itself, 19% of Trump voters acknowledge not telling people that they really support Donald Trump, compared to only 8% of Biden voters. There was a concern from the cancel culture. There was a concern of ridicule, that if you acknowledge who you voted for, that there will be consequences to it. And so they decide to say nothing. And until you can convince people that their opinions matter, until you can prove to them that they will have an impact, you're going to have this segment of society refusing to participate, and the pollsters are going to get it wrong again and again and again.

SIMON: I thought pollsters were correcting for that based on experience in 2016.

LUNTZ: And they were supposed to. They claim they did. They claim that they now do greater samples in rural communities. They claim that they have balanced their interviewing techniques. But clearly, that is not the case. And part of this is that you have to go out and talk to these people beyond just an interview. All a poll is - it's a computerized mechanism that allows you to collect data of how people think, but it doesn't tell you how they feel. And it doesn't explain why.

In all the work that I do - I do focus groups, I do one-on-one interviews - look; it was not a particularly safe thing for me to do, but on Saturday - I went to Reading, Pa., last Saturday. And I attended a Trump rally to talk to Trump voters to ask them about the polls and whether they felt that they were accurately representing their votes. And then on Monday night, I went and did the same thing at a Biden rally in Philadelphia. I got on a train. I took a cab. I drove. And I actually got up close and personal with the people who are responding to my surveys. That's the only way that you'll really know the truth. You have to ask people face to face, and too many pollsters think that they can just do it by hiring phone banks or sending out emails.

SIMON: Do that refine your results, Frank? Did it change what you said?

LUNTZ: It changed what I said. It did not - doesn't change the results because in the end, you can't weight something because of a gut instinct. But it does help you explain. And it does, in some cases, provide doubt. I know that Nate Silver was very declarative about his predictions, which you should not be using polling to do. Polling is merely a snapshot. You've heard that said before. I'm not the first person that...

SIMON: I've heard it said a million times all my life, yeah.

LUNTZ: But - and yet some people don't listen. Some people try to suggest that it tells you much more than it really does. And so Nate right now is on the defense. And I feel bad for him because he's being attacked by everybody. But if you look at the Election Day, Donald Trump was supposed to lose by eight points. Joe Biden was supposed to win by eight points. And when all these votes are counted, he's going to win by three. That five-point miss is beyond the margin of error. It's simply wrong. And the worst examples of that, The Washington Post, their final poll in Wisconsin had Joe Biden winning by 17 points. In the end, he won by a point and a half. I mean, that's awful. CNN's final poll had Biden winning by 12 points. I had reporters saying to me that there is no chance whatsoever that Donald Trump could potentially even make this close, and they were wrong.

SIMON: Republican pollster Frank Luntz, thanks so much for being with us.

LUNTZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.