John Harris

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A lesson from the US election: we’ll never understand voters just by looking at polls | John Harris

Monday, November 9th, 2020

If a country has so lost the ability to comprehend itself that its best minds have to depend on surveys, it clearly has a problem

As well as the celebrations triggered by Joe Biden’s eventual victory, one quieter sound can be heard in the US: that of opinion polling once again being read the last rites. Pollsters and analysts may have got the winning candidate right. But, perhaps because many Republican supporters preferred to keep their political preference quiet, the reduction of politics to maths did not predict the knife-edge results that materialised in so many US swing states, Democratic losses in Congress, and the fact that untold millions were in no mood to reject Donald Trump and what he stands for.

From some quarters, there are now suggestions that polling’s disgrace means something almost sacred may have died. “The real catastrophe,” said David Graham of the Atlantic magazine, “is that the failure of the polls leaves Americans with no reliable way to understand what we as a people think outside of elections – which in turn threatens our ability to make choices, or to cohere as a nation.”

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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