It’s not surprising. Polling can help shape a narrative about where the country is and where it is going. When polling is wrong, people can be misled and the stories being told about the electorate may have been flat out incorrect.
The fact that we have a smaller number of pollsters making up the lion’s share of polls coming out puts them in a powerful position. When that occurs, they can drive the narrative of where the country is standing on issues to a greater degree. If they’re accurate, this isn’t a big problem. If these pollsters are not accurate, the public and the press may be misled.
By my count, there have been a little more than 40 polls published about Biden’s approval rating that have come from companies rated some form of an A (i.e. A+, A, A- or A/B). At this point four years ago, there were a little less than 70 polls rated in this top tier.
When you expand out to pollsters rated a B+, the difference is even more stark. There were about 540 polls rated in the A or B+ category at this point in the Trump administration. There have been only about 140 at this point in the Biden administration. In 2017, this was driven a lot by the non-partisan Gallup tracking poll and YouGov. Gallup no longer publishes a tracking poll.
Of course for some people, the most important thing about polling is it tells you who is up and who is down in the horse race. The media often makes judgments about races from the polls, and plenty of people decide who and how to donate to candidates.
This year there have been only a little more than 60 congressional ballot polls published.
Again though, it’s not just the number. It’s the quality of the poll.
Using the same FiveThirtyEight system, there were 29 polls through early September 2017 that were rated somewhere in the A range. Through early September 2021, there have been only 4 polls in the A range.
A lot of the generic ballot polls produced also come from pollsters who poll for candidates, such as Change Research and McLaughlin & Associates. While most of these polls released aren’t for candidates and may very well be accurate representations of the electorate at this point, it’s something to keep in mind for both this data and for what types of polls may be published in the lead up to next year’s midterms.
In total, there have only been about 35 generic ballot polls published by non-partisan groups this cycle. The majority of those come from YouGov.
Last cycle, excluding the Ipsos tracking poll, there were double the number of generic ballot polls from non-partisan groups at this point.
For those who dislike polling, the smaller number of polls may be thought of as a good thing.
I, myself, make no apologies for liking the horse race, trying to understand how to get more people vaccinated or even comprehending whether public officials were with or against the American public on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The polling published has taught us that Americans are for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, but they didn’t like the way the President did it.
Moreover, I tend to think that no matter what, the public will want to know about the horse race and a president’s approval rating.
The question is whether we’re able to do it well. Unfortunately, the data indicates we have fewer tools at our disposal to understand where the public stands.