Pollsters disappear in Georgia with Senate on the line

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Something’s missing from Georgia’s high-stakes Senate runoffs: the polls.

After a disastrous November election for the polling industry, when the polls again underestimated President Donald Trump (who lost regardless) as well as GOP candidates down the ballot, pollsters are mostly sidelined in the run-up to the Jan. 5 Georgia elections, which most observers regard as toss-ups.

The public polls that drove so much of the news coverage ahead of November — and generated tremendous distrust afterward — have all but disappeared in Georgia, and they are set to stay that way: Some of the most prolific, best-regarded media and academic pollsters told POLITICO they have no plans to conduct pre-election surveys in Georgia.

And while the campaigns and outside groups are still using survey data to make critical decisions, in many cases, polling has taken a back seat. Strategists are leaning more heavily on absentee and early voting stats, along with the detailed results of the election held just last month.

The Georgia contests come at a perilous time for public and private polling alike. General-election polls in the state had a better track record than most in November, but the added complexity of post-election runoffs is piling on top of the uncertainty about political polling in general. The state was almost evenly divided between the parties in November, but the question of just which voters are going to show up for these irregular elections in January makes polling the runoffs that much harder.

“Should we just expect the Georgia polls to be right? I think that would be a little bit of a mistake,” said Nick Gourevitch, a Democratic pollster. “Everybody fundamentally understands that it’s going to become an issue of partisan turnout. And anybody who tells you they know exactly what’s going to happen in terms of partisan turnout in a special election with two senators to decide control of the Senate in a post-Trump era when he’s not on the [ballot] — nobody knows the answer to that question. It’s a completely unique situation.”

Public polling of the races has been sparse and generally shows both races deadlocked, as one might expect given the close November results in Georgia. Since the general election, FiveThirtyEight has tracked 12 polls of both contests, though most of those polls were conducted by firms with mixed or limited track records: Only two of those surveys were conducted by pollsters the site gives better than a “B-” rating. In their averages, the Republicans candidates each lead by less than a percentage point.

While the mere mention of polls might generate eye-rolls from even political junkies after this year, the surveys in Georgia actually performed well in 2020. The final FiveThirtyEight polling average in Georgia showed Joe Biden leading by 1.2 points, quite close to Biden’s final margin of 0.3 points.

The relative dearth of pre-election polling stands in contrast to the extensive news coverage the races are receiving. And while news outlets aren’t spending money on polling, the National Election Pool, a consortium of networks, is conducting exit polling in Georgia. The consortium began conducting phone interviews with absentee voters more than a week ago, and in-person interviewers were stationed outside of early-voting centers starting last week.

Part of the reason public pollsters are staying away from Georgia is the awkward timing of the races. With the elections being held on Jan. 5, the final two weeks of the race are coinciding with the Christmas and New Year’s holidays — typically a time when pollsters refrain from calling Americans on the phone. The voters who would answer a telephone poll or participate in an internet survey over the holidays might be meaningfully different from those who wouldn’t, which would skew the results.

Most major public pollsters are choosing not to field surveys over that time period, but the four campaigns don’t have a choice in the matter. The closing stretch of the races represents their final chances to shift resources or make changes to the television and digital advertising — decisions that will be made using multiple data streams, including polling.

“It does make it more difficult, no question,” said Robert Cahaly from the Trafalgar Group, an Atlanta-based firm that drew attention earlier this fall for showing better results for President Donald Trump than other surveys (Cahaly’s final survey in Georgia showed Trump ahead by 5 points). “It is hard. It’s also the campaigns. They’re not competing with each other — they’re competing with Santa Claus. They are literally competing with the Lexus ad with the big, red bow on the car.”

For some private pollsters, Georgia is an opportunity to test how to combat the errors that persisted in the election last month. Some of the theories about the errors are unique to the current moment. Democratic pollster Brian Stryker was the lead author of a memo earlier this month that suggested the coronavirus pandemic as a culprit for some of the polling error, which would make measuring the Georgia Senate runoffs in the middle of a coronavirus surge more complicated.

The analysis by Stryker’s firm — ALG Research, which polled for Biden — found a connection between the prevalence of Covid-19 in a state, as measured by new cases and fatalities, and the difference between the final polling average and the election results in that state.

“Simply put, people more worried about Covid were more likely to take our polls,” Stryker’s memo read, “and those people were also more likely to vote for Democrats regardless of their age, education, race, gender or party identification.”

In a phone interview, Stryker pointed out that “the Georgia polls were pretty much dead-on” in November. But, he added, “Covid’s a lot worse in Georgia right now than it was on Election Day.”

“We saw these problems show up in North Dakota and South Dakota and Wisconsin and Iowa in the worst way,” Stryker said, pointing to the connection between Democratic underperformance in states with high Covid rates. “Do they show up in Georgia? Do they skew the polling in Georgia to be more Democratic?”

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