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Nobody knows anything. And other lessons from Election Night coverage

REUTERS/Hannah McKay
People watching the television coverage of the U.S. Presidential election results during an election party at the U.S. embassy in London.

As bad as last night’s election was for Democrats — and it was very, very bad — it was at least as bad for the professional poll and punditry class.

As vote totals accumulated Tuesday evening, with calls for swing states like Ohio and North Carolina, viewers were left with long, stunned, awkward silences from assembled anchors and talking heads. At one point on the liberal-leaning MSNBC Tuesday night, one panelist could be heard gasping, “Jesus!” after a particularly startling reversal of conventional wisdom.

On Wednesday, there was plenty of furious back-filling on the morning shows, with lots of oblique references to assertions made days, weeks or months ago suggesting the possibility of a Donald Trump victory. But the hard fact is that American journalists and their heretofore vaunted analytics compatriots were proven all but universally wrong in judging the appeal of Trump to the country’s voters.

One the current theories (from the same people) for why this happened is a fundamental lack of contact with and/or understanding of Trump’s base voters, as well as the high reluctance of the upper classes of traditional Republicans to admit publicly — to a real live person tallying numbers over the telephone — that they were indeed voting for Trump. The insinuation being that Trump’s reputation for racism, xenophobia, misogyny, yadda yadda precluded polite people from telegraphing their preference for him over Hillary Clinton.

The performance of algorithmic maestros like FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver leaves the value of their future analyses under a dense cloud of skepticism. Signing off last night, Silver wrote, “In an extremely narrow sense, I’m not that surprised by the outcome, since polling — to a greater extent than the conventional wisdom acknowledged — had shown a fairly competitive race with critical weaknesses for Clinton in the Electoral College. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Clinton will eventually win the popular vote as more votes come in from California. But in a broader sense? It’s the most shocking political development of my lifetime. We’re going to get some sleep, and then we’ll have much more to say over the next days and weeks about how Trump won and what it means for the country.”

Princeton’s Sam Wang, more accurate than Silver in several previous calls, drew the curtain early Wednesday morning writing, “Going into today’s election, many races appeared to be very close: 12 state-level Presidential races were within five percentage points. But the polls were off, massively. And so we face the likelihood of an electoral win by Donald Trump. … In addition to the enormous polling error, I did not correctly estimate the size of the correlated error – by a factor of five. As I wrote before, that five-fold difference accounted for the difference between the 99% probability here and the lower probabilities at other sites. We all estimated the Clinton win at being probable, but I was most extreme. It goes to show that even if the estimation problem is reduced to one parameter, it’s still essential to do a good job with that one parameter. Polls failed, and I amplified that failure.”

Both gentlemen get points for candor and humility, for what that’s worth. 

Over in Wisconsin the (until last night) much-respected Marquette University Law School Poll wasn’t even close to accurate. In The Badger Herald, a University of Wisconsin student paper, there’s this: “Pre-election polling consistently had Clinton leading the country and the state, and the Democratic nominee didn’t make a single stop in Wisconsin after losing in the state primaries in April. The latest Marquette University Law School poll for example, had Clinton with a 46 percent to 40 percent lead over Trump. Barry Burden, a University of Wisconsin political science professor, said it remains unclear how the polls both here and nationally failed to predict a Trump victory. ‘There was almost never a poll with Trump tied or ahead, so something has gone fundamentally wrong here,’ Burden said. ‘I tend to think it’s a Trump-specific phenomena. He has just defied all the conventions and expectations we have in electoral politics.’ ”

Among the surpassingly few polling operations that correctly assessed the public mood was the USC Dornsife/LA Times Presidential Election Daybreak Poll. It was routinely dismissed by analysts as an unreliable outlier because of its use of “weighting” and because it is conducted online, not live person-to-live person on the phone. Untraditional though it is, it may have been the best method for this election because it protected the identity of voters either too embarrassed or ashamed to publicly declare for Trump.

As David Lauter explains in the Times, “Most of the summer and fall, the poll’s results have been about 6 percentage points more favorable to the Republican than the polling averages. As of Tuesday morning, the poll’s final forecast for the election showed Trump leading by a little over 3 points, 46.8% to 43.6%. … The biggest difference between the Daybreak poll and most other surveys involves what pollsters refer to as weighting, the process of adjusting a poll’s data to make sure it properly represents the diversity of the population. The Daybreak poll uses a weighting plan that is more complicated than most other surveys — perhaps too complex, critics said. As Ernie Tedeschi, a Washington-based economist and former Treasury Department official, has shown, if you take the Daybreak poll’s data — which USC made available to the public — and weight it more in line with the usual system pollsters use, you get results that largely match the polling averages.

“But as Sean Trende, the political analyst at Real Clear Politics, wrote of the Daybreak poll several weeks ago, ‘truth is not decided by committee.’ The fact that the Daybreak poll was weighted differently doesn’t mean that it was weighted incorrectly, it just means that it is different. Some of the worst failures of polling have come about because pollsters, whether deliberately or not, converged on a single view of an election, in what is often referred to as ‘herding.’ “

Woe to those who consume only the wisdom of the herd.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/09/2016 - 02:12 pm.

    The herd

    Indeed, there’s much for pollsters and journalists to chew on over the next 4 years, not to mention those of us who voted for Clinton, whether reluctantly or enthusiastically. Much has been made by commentators (including me) in the few years I’ve been here about tea party types talking only to each other in a sort of echo chamber. A pretty good case could be made, given the shock and dismay with which Trump’s victory has been greeted by many on the center-left part of the spectrum, that a virtually identical echo chamber exists for people who sometimes think of themselves as “liberals.” Calling it “the herd” for analysts and poll-takers may give it a different name, but it doesn’t change the phenomenon of dismissing viewpoints we don’t want to see or hear. It seems to me that that tendency to self-segregate into agreeable cohorts politically, socially, etc., works just as well on the left as on the right, and in the middle, too.

    Whether Mr. Trump lives up to, or down to, your expectations over the next few years, it seems safe to say that Brian’s headline above is eerily correct, at least until some new methodology is devised that can more accurately reflect what people will actually DO. Talk is cheap. It’s action that counts, and just because I say I’m going to vote for ‘x’ doesn’t mean that’s the bubble I fill in on the ballot.

  2. Submitted by Marc Williams on 11/09/2016 - 08:42 pm.

    IBD thinks they got it right

    I’m not sure if Investor’s Business Daily actually nailed it – they predicted a Trump win of the popular vote – but they were almost alone in predicting how tight the race actually was.

  3. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/10/2016 - 08:29 am.

    Foreign journalist’s views are interesting

    From an Australian source:

    “The reality is that while American political leaders and policy intellectuals have talked incessantly about America’s unchallengeable power and unshakable resolve, its voters and taxpayers — and the social-economic classes that provide most of the soldiers — have seen money and often lives wasted in a long series of policy failures. Who can wonder that an electorate already angry about economic stagnation and poor services turn their backs on all this.”

    Those “leaders” and “policy intellectuals” in some sense, had failed so miserably that they had to be thrown out…in self-defense !!

    It’s too bad that in order to reject Clinton and the Clinton ethos, it was necessary to elect Trump, due to the perverse grip of the two party system on the levers of power.

  4. Submitted by Jim Boulay on 11/10/2016 - 11:35 am.

    Jesse The Body

    Am I the only one who remembers Jesse The Body’s “We shocked the world!” When he won the Governors race? Trump did the exact same thing. He was able to get more people to actually go out and vote for him. Increasing the turn out of 10-15% skews the polling. It is just so sad that so many do not even bother to vote. I certainly thought that the polls could be off on this one because we’ve seen it before right here in Minnesota, especially a celebrity. The last time we had a new republican administration take over we ended up with 9-11, the War in Afghanistan, the War in Iraq and the Great Recession! God have mercy on our souls.

  5. Submitted by John Edwards on 11/10/2016 - 01:22 pm.

    Nothing to see here

    Let us not forget that the esteemed Minnesota Poll also again continually overstated support for Democrats like Hillary Clinton. Star Tribune Oct 23: Clinton 47, Trump 39. Result: Clinton 49, Trump 47. The Star-Tribune, the PR arm of the DFL, his historically manipulated results of its polling for this reason.

    Its historic bias even generated an article in 2010 by an incredulous liberal Washington Post.
    ( )

    Also, let us never forget that in 1978 the newspaper was forced to discontinue the Minnesota Poll for several years when the firm it hired to do the polling resigned because the newspaper drastically changed the numbers the firm submitted to show a Perpich victory in the poll before the election.
    Al Quie won, as the true numbers showed he would. The polling firm’s letter found its way to the Pioneer Press, which printed it, resulting in a scandal that caused a Rather-like examination of the poll’s processes. The upshot: In nearly 40 years since results show the Minnesota Poll remains a political tool.

  6. Submitted by tim johnson on 11/13/2016 - 02:01 am.

    Headline should be National Enquirer puts it to Hillary

    Too little has been said about the role of the National Enquirer: with 1 million in circulation every week right there with sexy headlines, grabbing photos, as you wait at the cash register, its influence is broad and you-bic-wit-us,,, or agin us…
    The past year to 18 months, it went whole hog for The Donald, as if it was his own PR publication, in what may be unprecedented political partisanship for the NE;
    Plus, it ran regular big and scathing specials on Hillary and Bill every week. Many of them were re-hashes of old news about Bill and the women he sexually harassed, assaulted or just got it on with and often not new news. But the NE kept up a constant, graphic presentation of his scandalous life in the public purview like nothing else… always including HIllary’s various roles….
    And the NE was all over Hillary’s email scandal, with Tony the Hot Dog man emphasized, again, with the photos..
    The NE typically gets too little attention from the MSM; But it remains one of the most popular publications in America, read, probably, for the most part by people who voted for Trump, or were prone to vote for him. And those people read NE for the same reasons, probably, that they voted for Trump: It’s unPC, willing to shine nasty and unflattering light on the rich and powerful and elite, especially of Hollywood, NYC and DC.
    And it’s punchy, pithy, concise and germane…and lots of fun.
    From OJ to Jon Benet to John Edwards, the NE has led the way in scooping the MSM on breaking big stories…. OJ’s Bruno Magli shoes? NE did the legwork and proved it.
    Charlie Sheen having HIV? NE was all over it months before anyone else….
    Johny Boy Edwards having a mistress and baby hiding out in hotels and using campaign funds as hush money? NE got the goods with old-fashioned shoe-leather, crude investigation, chasing him down, literally, in a hotel.
    In that case, the MSM no doubt left that story alone – until NE broke it – out of political bias, for the most part. But NE’s stories affected the election that year.
    Many people don’t realize the NE doesn’t traffic in the Bat Boy and “I was abducted by aliens” stories as do some other tabloids. Almost always, it’s stories are factual, if overblown, over-hyped and headlines often have a bait-and-switch in them.
    The NE, however, did take a turn to the more tawdry in the past two years, doing mostly celebs caught running around,, snorting, sniffing, smoking, whatever. It’s not nice, but nearly always, it’s not untrue. (NE did recently run an apology saying it ‘in no way’ meant to communicate that Tom Hanks’ marriage was ending.)
    If it’s in the NE, it’s probably not polite, but it probably what went down.
    NE’s constant drumbeat against Hillary and Bill no doubt affected the election; as did its rather weirdly single-minded support for the Donald….
    Drudge, as well as Rush, also went bigtime into the bag for the Donald in the past year, way beyond their usual druthers on candidates…. and it all probably made the margin of difference….and//or reflects it….
    But the NE never gets mentioned.
    One thing MSM could do to get more in touch with the people they are trying to sell their products to, would be to start paying more attention to the National Enquirer.

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