The big story in each of the last two presidential elections is how wide of the mark many pollsters’ forecasts turned out to be. They gave Hillary Clinton anywhere from a 70 percent to 90 percent chance of winning the 2016 race based upon polling that turned out to be spectacularly wrong—Donald Trump became president, of course. Despite having four years to adjust their sights, most polls this year, which had Joe Biden ahead in the popular vote by anywhere from 8 percent to 12 percent, also significantly misjudged the numbers, though Biden appears poised to claim the presidency.
A close look at some of the most expensive, heavily contested ballot initiatives in a few states this year suggests that polling issues extend beyond voters’ presidential candidate preferences. In states as different as California, Illinois, and Arizona, polls turned out to be significantly off on everything from raising taxes to reforming criminal justice. Whether the misfires were a function of bad sampling, voters changing their minds at the last minute, or people deciding that some issues—especially those heavily backed by left-leaning groups—are too controversial to talk about frankly with survey takers, the results point to broader problems with political polling.
Perhaps the biggest polling failure occurred in Illinois, where advocates of a progressive income tax battled opponents in a $120 million campaign supported by much of the state’s Democratic establishment. The Graduated Income Tax Amendment would have let Illinois government boost taxes from 4.99 percent to 7.75 percent for those earning more than $250,000 a year and to 7.99 percent for incomes above $750,000. Governor J. B. Pritzker and the Democratic-controlled state legislature had already passed a law imposing the tax, which they estimated would raise some $3.5 billion for the deeply indebted state, but to put the law into effect they needed to amend the state’s constitution.
With about $60 million to spend in support of the initiative and a “tax the other guy” strategy that argued that only the state’s wealthiest residents would pay, supporters banked on polls taken last spring that suggested two-thirds of voters supported the amendment. It also continued to poll well in the fall, with one survey predicting that it would pass with 55 percent of the vote. Given that Pritzker and his allies had warned that without the amendment, taxes would go up for everyone, the measure seemed an easy winner. Yet it failed handily, garnering just 45 percent support, as voters heeded the warning of opponents that introducing a progressive income tax would eventually lead to much broader tax increases. “There will be cuts and they will be painful,” said Pritzker after the defeat.
A similar tax ballot question in Arizona, Proposition 208, may have just squeaked by, but at a margin far below what the polls suggested. The measure proposed an income-tax surcharge on incomes over $250,000 to provide more funding for public schools. Supporters, including the National Education Association, which contributed $6 million to the $17 million campaign, thought they were heading to easy victory when a September poll showed 64 percent of high-turnout voters approved of the measure, and that “just 25 percent of registered voters say they will vote against this.” Two days after the election, with 89 percent of districts reporting, the vote remained too close to call.
Like the Illinois and Arizona initiatives, Proposition 15 in California was designed to win voter approval by imposing a tax increase on a specific constituency—in this case, businesses. The initiative would have revoked elements of the 1978 constitutional amendment Proposition 13, which limits property tax increases, pertaining to assessments of commercial properties. Backers invested heavily in the imitative, led by the California Teachers Association, which donated $17.5 million to the campaign, and the Service Employees International Union, whose various locals contributed another $6 million. Polls taken throughout the fall consistently showed that half of all voters supported the measure, and that a large percentage of the rest were undecided, leaving as few as 21 percent of voters in one poll opposing the question. Under that scenario, the only way the proposition could lose was if all the undecideds voted against it—an unlikely scenario. Nevertheless, the initiative lost by 52 percent to 48 percent as voters accepted the argument that rolling back Prop. 13 would eventually lead to sharp tax increases on residential properties, too.
It’s not unusual for voters to tell pollsters early in an election cycle that they are undecided on complex ballot initiatives. What was notable was how, in several California initiatives, virtually all those undecideds eventually voted against them, suggesting that voters may simply have been reluctant to tell pollsters how they really intended to vote. Both Prop. 21, which would have expanded local rent control in the Golden State, and Prop. 25, which would have ended cash bail for those awaiting trial, were leading in polls throughout the fall, but with a heavy percentage of voters saying that they hadn’t made up their minds. Prop 21—backed by the California Democratic Party, the state’s nursing union, Black Lives Matter, and the Democratic Socialists of America—garnered opposition from just 27 percent of respondents in one September poll, with an equal number of undecideds. Though opposition to the ballot question started to grow in the fall, nothing in the polling suggested that a decisive 60 percent of voters would say no. Similarly, polls showed Prop. 25, which would have upheld a new state law replacing cash bail with a risk-assessment program for those accused of crimes, in the lead going into the election, with almost a third of voters undecided. In the end, all but a small percentage of those undecideds broke against the ballot question, rebuking their state legislature by repealing the controversial law eliminating cash bail.
State ballot initiatives have become a costly proposition, with supporters and opponents spending some $1 billion this fall. Before leaping into some of these campaigns, advocates typically do polling to see how the questions play among the public. Given how unreliable polling has been this year, future ballot-backers may think twice about throwing good money after bad data.
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