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US Elections - How Did Polls Get It So Wrong?

Mal Fletcher
Posted 09 November 2016
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Immediately the heat began to seep out of their reactions to the elevation of President-elect Donald Trump, many mainstream political figures and media pundits in the US and even the UK began focusing on one prominent question.

How could the vast majority of America's professional pollsters have so misjudged the mood of the voting public?
It is a question that resonates with the hearts and minds of the British political and media establishment, many of whom are still reeling from the Brexit vote. 
Some British politicos find the Brexit result so unpalatable that they are eager to prevent or delay the people's intention by any means possible, whether by debating triggers to Article 50 in Parliament ad infinitum, or by calling for national elections.

The latter are ostensibly intended to give the Brits a chance to correct a terrible mistake, or at least to provide the Brexit vote with a credibility it in fact already has. 
Even before the Brexit vote, of course, British pundits were getting things wrong with their predictions about the likely outcome of the last national election.  
Today, stunned reactions within the US establishment reveal that many of the people who make their living in and around US politics are as out of touch with the wider public mood as their British counterparts.

Now, it must be said that whilst most polls predicted a win for Mrs. Clinton, the percentage difference was often within the margin of error.

However, this fact seems to have been ignored in most of the resulting predictions made by American pollsters and reported faithfully in the US media. It was also overlooked by more than a few politicos and media types on this side of the Pond.

If you turned on the normally trustworthy BBC News Channel this morning, as I did, you might be forgiven for thinking that you’d stumbled across the broadcast of a royal funeral. Every presenter and remote and studio reporter I saw looked stunned, drained and even a little disillusioned.

I can only imagine what was going on with Sky News. Even in the days leading up to the vote, they’d appeared very pro-Clinton. What happened to objectivity? What happened to reporting news and leaving editorialising to guest pundits?

Reporters are human beings, of course, and they will carry their own expectations into any election. However, they should not wear their hearts on their sleeves when reporting the outcomes. Pundits may do so but reporters and newsreaders should not.

The same emotion was on show on some of the US-based media channels available in this country.

For the most part, it seems that those charged with interpreting the polls for us, along with those providing them, had assumed an outcome that wasn’t to be.

The experts have underestimated the American public's underlying antipathy towards or outright disgust with the establishment of which they are a part.
Clearly, the political pollsters & commentators are either using completely faulty survey methods or are wilfully living inside a bubble when it comes to their interpretations of the data they garner. 
One problem they face is that when surveyed people will sometimes provide answers that don't reflect their intentions on election day.
A primary reason for this has to do with the dominance of mass opinion via an almost ubiquitous social media and traditional media presence.

Human nature is very moved by the power of social acculturation. We are social beings and look for acceptance and a sense of belonging to the wider group.
Other people's opinions matter to us, whether we admit this or not.

Sometimes, in order to fit with the prevailing opinion, we may practice a little misdirection when surveyed. The justifiction might be that as we're not actually voting, our answers don't really make a difference in any important way.
The impact of social acculturation in surveys is reflected by the fact that in this election as in others, online surveys have reportedly provided more accurate predictions than phone polls. 
The latter are more personal, involving a clear interaction between two human beings. In them, people are perhaps more likely to be influenced by the tone of voice of the surveyor, or the way a question is phrased. 
The former type are more "cool", to use the terminology of media lecturers; they involve less of a sense of flesh-and-blood interaction. After all, a modern political survey could easily be conducted - and perhaps sometimes is - by an algorithm rather than a person.
Meanwhile, the breakdown of institutional loyalty in western cultures means that people are less likely to have made up their minds well in advance of an election. Swing voters represent a growing constituency within many democratic systems. 

Younger people in particular do not approach elections with the same institutional or dynastic party loyalties as did many of their parents or grandparents.
They are more likely to base their choices on issues. In much of Europe, there is more outlet for this than in the US, because there are a greater number of parties and a more coalition-friendly system of government.
In this US election, there was also the phenomenon represented by Bernie Sanders. 
Many of his followers - a great number of them young people - felt that the deal done to enthrone Mrs Clinton as the Democratic nominee was unfair to Sanders and the positions he represented. 
This resentment, like that felt by many within the Reblican party who favoured a non-Trump candidacy, was another factor contributing to a more fluid and more unpredictable electorate. 
Whatever the ultimate reasons for the poor predictions of pollsters, they will need to work long and hard to improve their performance if they are to be of any real value in helping people understand elections and their results.

What’s your view?

Do you trust polls in major elections?



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