Emerson College polls: Post, and ye shall receive

Five days ago, I wrote about the sharp Republican shift since September 1, 2019 in polls conducted by Emerson College of hypothetical 2020 presidential election matchups between President Donald J. Trump and possible Democratic nominees. Emerson College is a high-quality pollster, rated A- and showing no partisan skew in recent elections according to FiveThirtyEight.com’s pollster ratings. What distinguishes Emerson College from other similarly high-quality pollsters assessing these matchups, though, is that the results they release have 0% choosing undecided or an unnamed candidate; this is likely, at least in part, because approximately 70% of Emerson College polls are conducted using automated voice response (aka “robopolling”).

[Eds. note: See August 2020 update]

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When I first wrote in June 2019 about Emerson College polls of these hypothetical matchups, it was to compare their results with those of HarrisX, a C+ pollster with a strong Republican bias of 1.3 percentage points (“points”). I calculated then that “[HarrisX”] polls have an average of 28.0% undecided between the named Democrat and Trump (or would choose a third-party candidate); I estimate these voters would break roughly 7-4 in favor of the Democratic nominee.” That rises to 2-1 if polls assessing former Vice President Joe Biden or United States Senator (“Senator”) from Vermont Bernie Sanders are excluded.

However, as though in response to my November 25, 2019 post, Emerson College just released results of hypothetical 2020 presidential election matchups in New Hampshire. They assessed five possible Democratic nominees: Biden, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Sanders, South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang; they surveyed 637 registered voters between November 22 and November 26,  2019.

Actually, the FiveThirtyEight.com poll tracker lists two sets of results: one with 0% “undecided/other” and one with between nine and 12% “undecided/other” (mean=10.8%); note that the former results are based upon 547 voters, 90 fewer than the latter results. We can thus directly assess how those roughly 1 in 9 voters would vote if “forced” to choose; results may be found in Table 1.

Table 1: Comparing Emerson College Polls of Hypothetical Match-ups Between President Trump and Specific 2020 Democratic Presidential Nominees in New Hampshire

Democrat With Undec/Other Without Undec/Other %Undec/Other %Trump by Undec/Other
Biden D+4 D+5 12% 45.8%
Warren D+4 D-2 10% 80.0%
Sanders D+7 D+3 9% 72.2%
Buttigieg D+8 D+6 11% 59.1%
Yang D+5 D-2 12% 79.2%
AVERAGE D+5.6 D+2.0 10.8% 66.7%

Poll results with a non-zero percentage choosing “undecided/other” show the hypothetical 2020 Democratic presidential nominee beating Trump in New Hampshire by an average of 5.6 points, slightly higher than the 4.6 points I calculate using all polls released since January 1, 2019. Moreover, all five Democrats lead Trump by between four and eight points. Once “undecided/other” voters are forced to choose, however, that average drops sharply to 2.0 points; Warren and Yang now trail Trump. That is because, on average, “undecided/other” voters choose Trump 2-1; this masks a curious divide, though: when offered Biden or Buttigieg, the split is nearly even, but when offered Warren, Sanders or Yang, the split is closer to 3-1.

While not strictly an apples-to-apples comparison, “undecided/other” voters breaking 2-1 for Trump is an exact reversal of my June analysis, when analogous voters broke nearly 2-1 against Trump. This reversal feels…implausible…if only because for years, the general rule of thumb was that these voters would ultimately break toward the non-incumbent, perhaps by as much as 2-1, as the incumbent was such a well-known quantity that opinions were basically fixed: a voter already knew if they approved of her/him or not. Still, that “rule” no longer seems to apply, so the best thing to do is to continue to aggregate all polls as best we can.

At the same time, the Emerson College results, when applied to other recent polls of hypothetical 2020 presidential election match-ups, are…odd. For example, consider this comparison of national SurveyUSA (A rating, D+0.1; 3,850 registered voters [RV]. November 20-21, 2019) and Emerson College polls (1,092 RV, November 17-20, 2019):

Table 2: Comparing National November 2019 SurveyUSA and Emerson College Polls of Hypothetical Match-ups Between President Trump and Specific 2020 Democratic Presidential Nominee

Democrat SurveyUSA Emerson College SurveyUSA


%Trump by Undec/Other






9% 155.6%






9% 88.9%






8% 137.5%






11% 100.0%






9.2% 120.5%

In the four SurveyUSA polls, the hypothetical 2020 Democratic presidential nominee tops 50% on average, with a nearly-10-point lead over Trump and only about 1 in 11 choosing “undecided/other.” By contrast, the four Emerson College polls—with every respondent forced to choose either Trump or his Democratic opponent—show a dead-even race, with Trump edging the Democrat by 0.5 points, on average. But for these two sets of polls to exist simultaneously, not only would every single (or, in the case of Warren, 89%) “undecided/other” voter have to break for Trump, but a small proportion of Democratic-leaning voters would also have to switch to Trump as well.

Which, again, seems…implausible.

As always, caveat emptor.

Until next time…

Published by

Matt Berger

I am a data geek, writer, investigator and film noir devotee with academic training in political science (Yale BA, Harvard MA), biostatistics (Boston University SPH MA) and epidemiology (Boston University SPH PhD). In January 2021, I finished writing Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History...and My Own for which I seek literary representation and a publisher. In Chapter 6: So...What Is Film Noir, Again?, I analyze my film noir database, which contains 4,825 titles. My musical holy trinity is Genesis, Miles Davis and Stan Ridgway. I am a liberal Democrat who understands a thriving democracy requires at least two mature political parties. I grew up just outside Philadelphia, and I live just outside Boston, where my wife and daughters keep me happy, sane and grounded. Please ask me anything else you want to know.

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