As midterm elections near, here’s how to read polls without driving yourself crazy

Silhouettes of people in a crowd are shown against a digital U.S. flag.
People protest in New York against the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe vs. Wade, removing a federal right to abortion. Because of polls, we know that decision caused a significant shift in public opinion. But what does it mean for candidates?
(Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Midterm elections are nearing, the outcome remains close, and many readers are eagerly — perhaps obsessively — watching the latest polls, trying to ascertain whether their side will prevail.

Can Democrat John Fetterman capture a Senate seat in Pennsylvania by continually ridiculing his Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz? (So far, seems like it.) Can Republican Blake Masters overcome an extremely slow start and unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly in Arizona? (No sign of it so far.) Can incumbent Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Raphael Warnock hold their seats in, respectively, Nevada and Georgia? (Control of the Senate probably turns on the answer, and anyone who pretends to know is lying.)

With just a little more than seven weeks left in the fall campaigns, flocks of surveys on those and other close races have started to fly into view, touted in fundraising emails, bannered in headlines and clamoring for the attention of voters — many of whom say they mistrust polls even as they can’t stop looking at them.

Polls provide a vital tool for understanding America, but a limited one. Here’s a guide to following them while keeping your equilibrium between now and election day, Nov. 8.

An important tool, with limits

Polls can tell us a lot. Because of polls, for example, we know that the Supreme Court’s June decision that overturned Roe vs. Wade and ended the nationwide guarantee of abortion rights caused a significant shift in public opinion, said Natalie Jackson, director of research at the Public Religion Research Institute, which surveys Americans extensively on their cultural values.

Polls by numerous organizations have shown that a large majority of Americans disapproved of the court’s decision; that respect for the court as an institution has dropped, especially among Democrats; that abortion has risen as an issue of importance to voters; and that a significant number have turned against the Republican Party in the aftermath.


Without polling, in a country where neighborhoods, occupations, churches and other activities are increasingly separated along lines of ideology and partisanship, Americans would know how they and their friends reacted to the decision, but would have nothing but occasional anecdotes to gauge what people outside their social circles think.

“In the absence of polls, we’d just have public officials claiming whatever they want,” said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center.

But polls aren’t as comprehensive or clear as people might like.

“Polls are fuzzy estimates,” Jackson said. “They’re not meant to be super precise — they can’t be because they’re samples.”

One good rule of thumb is to trust findings that are replicated by different organizations, rather than overreacting to whatever the latest poll says.

Take President Biden‘s job approval, for example. Lots of polls track it. At any given time, one or another poll might have Biden up or down. Collectively, however, the polls show a clear pattern: Approval of Biden hit a low point in July and has improved significantly since. The polling average maintained by the FiveThirtyEight site had Biden’s approval at 42% on Thursday, compared with 53% disapproving — not great, but about the level of approval that Presidents Reagan, Clinton and Obama had at this point in their first terms.

Averages have pluses and minuses — anyone putting together an average has to make decisions about which polls to include, for example. But their great strength is that they pool information from lots of different surveys conducted lots of different ways.

“What I pick up, someone else might miss. What I miss, someone else might pick up because we’re all using different methodologies,” said pollster David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston, which conducts surveys around the country for a large number of media clients, including USA Today and the Boston Globe.

“Understanding the limits” of what any one poll can provide “is a good place to start,” Paleologos said.

Take, for example, Ohio’s closely fought Senate race. Suffolk’s most recent survey, released Tuesday, showed Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan with 47% support and Republican J.D. Vance with 46%.

That’s not a lead for Ryan; it’s a tossup, given the poll’s margin of error of about 4.5 percentage points in either direction, but it’s consistent with other polls, which, on average, show Ryan just slightly ahead of Vance.

So it’s safe to say that the Ohio race is very close and that Ryan has a shot at winning a seat that Republicans have held since 1998. If his edge holds through election day, it would be a huge loss for Republicans, almost guaranteeing a Democratic majority in the Senate.

But will the Democratic edge hold up?

It could. Obama carried Ohio twice, and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown has won three statewide elections. But there are reasons to be skeptical.

Beyond Obama and Brown, Ohio has mostly gone for Republicans over the last generation. It’s important to think about polls in the context of everything else known about a race. Ohio’s record of GOP victories suggests a decent likelihood that people who are uncertain about voting could join ranks behind Vance by election day.


Sure enough, in Suffolk’s poll, Ryan has a bigger lead among people most certain to vote. Vance is ahead among people who are less certain to cast ballots, Paleologos said. So Vance has room to improve if he can motivate voters, and thanks to a huge infusion of money from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell‘s super PAC, he’ll have the resources to try.

Who will turn out to vote is one of the biggest question marks pollsters deal with: They not only have to come up with a sample that accurately reflects the population, they have to correctly forecast which part of that sample will cast a ballot. That’s why election polls have more uncertainty built into them than issue surveys.

The Ohio polls highlight another point: Democrats often think their side will always do better when turnout rises, but that’s not true. Increasingly, Democrats do best among college-educated voters, a group that votes pretty reliably. Republicans in the Trump era rely heavily on blue-collar white voters and have improved their position somewhat among blue-collar Latino voters, both groups that tend to have spottier turnout records.

College-educated voters are also the most likely to tell pollsters that they’re motivated by concerns about abortion. In special elections this summer, turnout among those voters was unusually high. That might continue into November — big upturns in voter registration by women, especially younger women, in several states could be an indicator of greater enthusiasm to vote — but that remains uncertain.

A final source of uncertainty for surveys: Polls in 2016 and 2020 tended to underestimate the Republican vote, especially in Midwestern states with lots of blue-collar white voters — places like Ohio and Wisconsin, where, in another tight race, Democrats hope to unseat Sen. Ron Johnson but Republicans are strenuously attacking his opponent, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, as weak on crime.

Pollsters have spent a lot of time studying the 2016 and 2020 results to try to figure out who they missed and why. The most likely problem is a significant number of Trump-supporting Republicans who refuse to respond to surveys, said Keeter, who has worked with Pew’s researchers to improve techniques for getting fully representative samples.

No one knows if that “nonresponse bias,” as pollsters refer to it, is something that happens only when Trump is on the ballot — polls in the 2018 midterm election were more accurate — or whether it’s affecting polls this year, as well. And while pollsters have tried a variety of ways to improve their samples, there’s no way to know in advance if they made the right adjustments.

So, what’s the bottom line? Pay more attention to averages; don’t overfocus on any individual survey. Use some common sense. And don’t expect polls to deliver more precision than they can accomplish.


Polls have a good track record of being able to “predict the outcome within a few percentage points,” Keeter said. That’s a good thing, but “elections are often decided by less than a few percentage points.”

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A wild case in west L.A.

Los Angeles County sheriff’s investigators searched the Santa Monica house of county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl on Wednesday as part of a criminal investigation into a county contract awarded to a nonprofit organization. Kuehl, one of the most outspoken critics of Sheriff Alex Villanueva, denounced the search as “bogus” and politically motivated. Dist. Atty. George Gascón, who has also feuded with Villanueva, said through a spokesperson that prosecutors “were not consulted or aware of the search warrants that were served today. In this case, because we did not review the warrant beforehand, we do not intend to defend it if challenged in court.” As Alene Tchekmedyian wrote, the case reignited angry claims from critics that Villanueva is using a secretive public corruption unit to target political enemies and others who have crossed him.

Steve Lopez, in his column, writes that Villanueva, who is in a tight race for reelection, appears to be getting desperate.

In other news involving the Sheriff’s Department, a Times investigation finds that among the thousands of people who have received permits to carry weapons since Villanueva accelerated permitting are dozens of donors to his election campaigns and others with special links to the sheriff. These people often gave questionable reasons for needing to be armed, received their permits more quickly than the average wait or were assisted by two deputies who worked directly for Villanueva, Tchekmedyian and Ben Poston reported.

The latest from the campaign trail

Oregon has a three-way contest for governor, and right now, it’s a close fight. And that, Mark Barabak writes, raises the prospect the state could elect a gun-loving, corporate-hugging, woke-bashing political independent as its next leader. Or, just as surprising, a Republican, which hasn’t happened since Ronald Reagan was in the White House. The independent would be Betsy Johnson, the heir to a timber fortune and a former state legislator. She likens herself to Goldilocks, neither too far left nor too far right, but her acerbic persona and harsh attacks on rivals suggest little of the innocent fairy tale character, Barabak writes. The Republican is Christine Drazan, the former Republican leader in the state House. The Democrat, Tina Kotek, the former state House speaker, remains the favorite, but the race is closer than many analysts expected.

— Confused about what the midterm elections are all about? Jon Healey sets out the basic facts.

— The midterm elections mark the busy season for the nation’s election administrators, and this year, their job is harder than normal. That’s because they have a flood of lies and misinformation to combat, along with an apparent attempt by Trump cultists to undermine the election system with a deliberate sabotage campaign, Barabak writes.

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The latest from Washington

— Politicians have been using migrants as props for decades. As Noah Bierman wrote, Republicans often visit the Southwest border and declare that immigration is out of control. During the Trump administration, Democrats made their way to detention centers to decry the treatment of children locked in cages. In recent weeks, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas has taken the tactic to a new level, busing migrants from his state to Washington, D.C., and New York to attract attention to what he says is a crisis on the border. Thursday he bused about 100 people — including many who said they were fleeing violence or poverty — to Vice President Kamala Harris’ doorstep. Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, following Abbott’s lead, sent a separate group of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, a playground for wealthy liberals, on Wednesday evening.

— The Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote said Wednesday that at least for now, it will not shield Yeshiva University from a state court order that requires it to recognize a LGBTQ student group on campus. The temporary order allows the legal battle to continue in New York. As David Savage wrote, two conservatives, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, joined the court’s three liberals, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Kentanji Brown Jackson, in the ruling.

— The U.S. Senate does not have to release its full report detailing the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogation and detention program that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, a federal judge ruled Thursday. As Sarah Wire wrote, the ruling is the latest setback for journalists and others seeking to get more of the Senate’s investigation into the public record.

The latest from California

— After a dormant summer on the airwaves, Rick Caruso’s mayoral campaign has reserved $17-million worth of broadcast TV ad time spread over the remaining weeks of the race. As Julia Wick reported, it’s a colossal sum — likely the largest single-day ad reservation ever placed in a local L.A. race — and a level of spending that could help Caruso narrow the double-digit gap between him and Rep. Karen Bass in the Nov. 8 general election. Bass has not placed any ad buys for the general election, although an allied group sponsored by the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters has reserved more than $1.1 million in cable and broadcast airtime for ads supporting her and other allies are expected to step in.

— The high cost of housing in Orange County created an obstacle for UC Irvine when it sought to recruit talented faculty and administrators. So state university leaders created a nonprofit that built a sprawling suburban development, dubbed University Hills, laced with nature trails and boasting some of California’s top K-12 schools. Katie Porter bought a home in the faculty community in 2011, when she began teaching at UC Irvine’s law school. She and her family have continued to live there since she was elected to Congress four years ago and took an unpaid leave from the university. Now, her opponent in the November election is calling Porter’s continued residence in the faculty housing an “insider deal” because she no longer teaches at UCI. Seema Mehta examined the facts of the housing arrangement.

Two people are in custody in connection with the burglary of Rep. Karen Bass’ Baldwin Vista home, an LAPD spokesperson said Wednesday. As Doug Smith and David Zahniser reported, two handguns belonging to Bass were stolen Sept. 9, the Los Angeles mayoral candidate said in a statement. Cash, electronics and other valuables at her house weren’t taken, Bass said.

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