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What Went Wrong with Polling in 2020? A Look at Maine

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Thursday, November 5, 2020   

WATERVILLE, Maine -- How did polling organizations get the margins so wrong, again? And in Maine, how did they miss Republican Sen. Susan Collins' relative landslide?

Dan Shea, pollster and chair of the Government Department at Colby College, projected the Senate contest to be a close race, with Democratic nominee Sara Gideon winning.

But Collins performed much better in rural areas than Shea expected.

Similar to 2016, he thinks rural, blue-collar voters were underrepresented in the surveys, despite pollsters' best efforts. But Shea believes another unique phenomenon was at play.

"Maine is the only state in the last two presidential election cycles where the same party didn't win the presidency and the Senate," Shea noted.

In other words, a large number of Mainers "split the ticket" between Democrats and Republicans, voting both for Joe Biden and for Susan Collins, something Shea said is increasingly rare in U.S. elections.

On Tuesday, Sen. Collins got more than 51% of the vote, about 9% more than challenger Gideon.

Shea said one big reason polling hasn't been as reliable as it could is that few people answer their phones anymore.

While phone responses comprise at least one-third of Colby polling, the rest come from online surveys.

Shea thinks this shift represents a systemic bias.

"Are there groups that are just not part of these online pools?" Shea wondered. "And we're finding that that's likely true. And I think the male, blue-collar worker in rural areas is not represented in these online pools."

Shea added there's no doubt the polling industry is in a period of transition.


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