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Polling giant Mark Mellman discusses 2016, 2020 elections, future of polling in Taubman Center talk

Mellman speaks about increasing partisanship, effect on election predictions, outcomes with Professor Richard Arenberg

Mark Mellman, the president of the American Association of Political Consultants and chief executive officer of The Mellman Group, joined Visiting Professor of the Practice of Political Science Richard Arenberg to discuss the current state and future of political polling with the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy Feb. 18. 

Failures in predicting the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, as well as the outcomes of several states in the 2020 election, have called polling into question in recent years. But Mellman, who has been a Democratic strategist and pollster since the 1980s and has guided the campaigns of 29 U.S. Senators, 10 governors and more than two dozen members of Congress, said that polling is “still extremely useful,” despite being “in difficult straits.” Rather, Mellman argues, the failed polling seen in 2016 can be attributed to partisanship.

In 2016, many Republican voters ambivalent toward Trump ultimately “followed partisan guidelines,” Mellman said. This led Trump to “end up with the highest percentage of the Republican vote of any Republican candidate in the history of polling.”

Mellman also cited “differential non-response” — a lower likelihood of survey participation — as a reason for actual Trump support being greater than was represented in the polls, countering Arenberg’s suggestion that the “shy Trump voter” was the root of polling error. Republicans, Mellman said, have become less willing to take political support surveys during electoral cycles in recent years as a result of political and sociological reasons such as a lack of confidence in the accuracy of the polling system. 

Mellman also said that pollsters often have a “voter fetish” and focus on repeat voters, which “distorts the electorate” in favor of likely voters.

“One wants to replicate the likely electorate,” Mellman said. “And one doesn't want a poll of likely voters because no electorate's ever been made up just of likely voters.”

In response to a question about the possibility of further cleavage in the current GOP into a third party composed of Trump loyalists or “never Trump” critics, Mellman said a split is unlikely, citing Duverger’s Law, which states that voters tend to favor a two-party system. 

The primary reason for a party to change is a decisive election loss, which neither party has encountered, Mellman argued. “If it gets to the point where the Republicans do lose decisively,” he said, “I think we'll see that change.” 

Trump’s 2016 victory, Mellman said, was the product of uniting three strands of conservatism: An aversion to big government, an aversion to change and an aversion to difference. He called these three strands a “powerful coalition” but “not a majority” of the electorate.

“What holds the Trump vote together is Trump,” he said, making the future of the 2024 presidential election uncertain.

The shift to mail-in balloting and the development of technology has changed the polling industry, Mellman said. With the decrease of landline usage, political polling has had to become versatile across new mediums — shifts that will have implications for the 2022 midterm and the 2024 presidential elections.

The effects of COVID-19 on the political fortunes of both major political parties was also discussed. “We're going to have COVID under control in 2022, which it certainly was not in 2020,” Mellman said, predicting that economic recovery is likely to help Democrats, but political division leaves much about the future uncertain.

Despite strong efforts by President Joe Biden to promote bipartisanship, Mellman said he is “pessimistic” about the improvement of political and social unity in the country. 

“I don’t think there’s a lot of hope in the short-term, even in the medium term,” he said. “The lines get deeper, and deeper and deeper, so it’s a trench and now it’s a canyon.”



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