Survey: A majority of Americans don’t believe polls are accurate

Greg Nash

Polling has increasingly become a fixture of American political journalism but according to a new survey, most of the public doubts that polls are accurate.

According to a new The Hill-HarrisX poll released Thursday, a majority of registered voters (52 percent) are doubtful about surveys they hear about in the news media. Twenty-nine percent of respondents said they don’t believe most polls but do trust a few while 19 percent said they “almost never” believe that polls are accurate.

While the majority were mistrustful of polls, 15 percent of respondents said they “almost always” believed in polls they heard about in the press. Thirty-three percent said they believed most polls but not all of them.

Male respondents in the Hill-HarrisX poll tended to be more trusting of polls and more skeptical of them than women.

Twenty-three percent of men said they “almost never” believe surveys while only 16 percent of women said the same. Among men, 15 percent said they “almost always” believe polls are accurate. Just 9 percent of women agreed.

Younger people were the most trusting with a majority, 55 percent, of voters between the ages of 18 and 34 saying they believe most or almost all polls. Elderly voters were the most skeptical; only 41 percent of voters who were 65 and older said they believed most or all surveys.

That most Americans continue to doubt the accuracy of public opinion surveys is notable considering how that most pollsters performed historically well during the November midterm elections.

“They were borne out to be really, pretty accurate in the most recent elections in 2018,” Republican pollster Jim Hobart said on Thursday on “What America’s Thinking,” Hill.TV’s show about public opinion and the polling industry. “We make every effort to get things right and we’ve got a pretty good track record.”

While Republican pollsters are confident in their craft, GOP base voters appear not to be.

A significant majority of Democrats in the Hill-HarrisX survey, 60 percent, said they think opinion polling is mostly or almost always accurate. Just 36 percent of Republican respondents agreed. Independents were in-between with 49 percent saying they had confidence in most or all surveys.

Ideological progressives were highly trusting of polls in the study. Sixty-seven percent of respondents who said they had a “strong liberal” ideology said they believed in most or almost all polls. Only 32 percent of voters who said they were “strong conservatives” said the same. Self-described moderates were evenly split, 50-50, on whether polls should be trusted.

The GOP skepticism about public opinion surveys is part of a long-term trend on the U.S. political right. Former president Richard Nixon frequently spoke of a “silent majority” that was invisible in polls. In 2012, many conservative commentators accused pollsters of deliberately skewing their samples to favor then-president Barack Obama during his re-election bid. A survey by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling found that 71 percent of self-identified Republicans believed this to be the case. As it happened, the polls that year were biased–against Obama.

(Nonetheless, it does seem to be the case that exit polls, surveys conducted of people leaving voting locations, have historically oversampled liberals.)

As president, Donald Trump has regularly criticized the accuracy of polls, even going so far as to say that he didn’t believe any 2018 ones that showed Democrats with the upper hand ahead of the midterm elections.

“I believe in polls — only the ones that have us up…Other than that, they’re the fake news polls,” he said at a Pennsylvania campaign stop in October.

Trump has flip-flopped on the accuracy of polls since he became president. During his campaign to become the 2016 Republican presidential nominee, he frequently touted them. Once he was elected, however, he began telling supporters not to believe them, presumably because almost none have shown him with an approval rating above 50 percent.

The latest Hill-HarrisX poll was conducted Dec. 19-20 among 1,001 registered voters and has a sampling margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

—Matthew Sheffield

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