Some candidates do better than the polls and others worse. We break it down.

Image: Early Voting Nevada
A voter casts a ballot on the final day of early voting for the upcoming Nevada Democratic presidential caucus in Las Vegas, Nev., on Feb. 18, 2020. Copyright Mario Tama Getty Images
Copyright Mario Tama Getty Images
By Josh Clinton and John Lapinski with NBC News Politics
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The NBC Decision Desk analyzed dozens of surveys taken before votes in the early 2020 primary states.


Pre-election polls are more important this primary election cycle than ever before.

Last week, Michael Bloomberg was given a place on the debate stage in Las Vegas because of his rising support in pre-election polls. Polls provide more than just interesting talking points — they can have direct consequences for candidates' futures.

With the first three Democratic Party contests of the season behind us, it's worth looking at how well pre-election polls have done so far at predicting candidates' support on Election Day. (We didn't analyze the accuracy of pre-Nevada polling but will do so in a future report.)

So far, we find the ability of pre-election polls to predict a candidate's support on election day is not exactly reassuring. Large errors are being made for some candidates, most notably Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar.

In the two weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses there were 14 polls that were released and reported publicly. Two weeks prior to the New Hampshire primary, 31 polls were released, including 19 that were done and released after the Iowa caucuses.

There are several ways to analyze the performance of pre-election polls.

Because we are interested in how well pre-election polls are able to measure strength of support for a candidate, we simply compare the election results of the five leading Democratic candidates to their average support in the polls released in the two weeks prior to the election. For Iowa, we use the results from the initial preference ballot because it is the vote that most closely resembles the original views of caucus-goers prior to any reallocation in which they may choose a candidate who wasn't their first pick.

To keep things simple, and to focus on the overall performance of pre-election polls, we treat them all equally and we make no attempt to judge whether or why some may be doing better or worse.

To evaluate how well polls are able to predict a candidate's support we examine how the percentage of votes received by each candidate compared to their average support in the polls. Candidates with positive values did better than the polls predicted and candidates with negative values did worse.

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The results are revealing.

Joe Biden underperformed — did worse than the polls had suggested he would — in both elections relative to the pre-election polling average. Buttigieg significantly outperformed his polling average in both Iowa and New Hampshire and Klobuchar's surprise third-place finish in New Hampshire was not at all predicted by the polls. For Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, however, their performances were more in line with what might be expected given the sampling error of polls.

Despite there being roughly twice as many polls in New Hampshire than Iowa, they continued to err in particular ways for certain candidates. Thirty of the 31 polls overpredicted the performance of Biden and all 31 underpredicted Klobuchar's result in New Hampshire. Nearly every poll — 28 out of 31 — underpredicted Buttigieg and overpredicted Warren.

It is tempting to suggest that performance of the New Hampshire polls are a result of momentum following Iowa.

Looking only at the 19 polls conducted and released between the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary reassuringly reveals that although the polling errors are smaller for every candidate — and although the polls dramatically unpredicted the performance of Klobuchar — nearly every poll made similar mistakes by either overpredicting the support for Biden and Warren and underpredicting the support for Buttigieg and Klobuchar.

Large errors are being made for some candidates — most notably for Buttiegieg in Iowa and Klobuchar in New Hampshire — and many of the polls are making similar types of errors for most of the leading candidates. Some of these errors may be due to voters changing their minds.

The NBC Exit Polls, for example, revealed that 36 percent of Democratic Primary voters in Iowa and 51 percent in New Hampshire decided who they would vote for in the last few days before election day — last-minute decisions that may be difficult to capture in pre-election polling conducted before decisions were made. We will continue to track whether the polls are better able to predict candidates' support improves as the campaign continues.

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