What the polls and pundits got wrong about the 2016 US election

The election results came as a shock for those who never thought Donald Trump had a real shot at the White House.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

The results of the US 2016 presidential election left many surprised and dismayed.

Updated Nov 11, 2016

Disappointment. Dejection. Frustration. These emotions were etched clearly on the faces of Hillary Clinton supporters as they awaited the election results at the party headquarters in New York City, images show. One woman stood with her arms in the air, mouth agape. 

“Is this really what America wants? I can't wrap my mind around this! I still have hope,” Jesse Tyler Ferguson, a popular actor, tweeted in disbelief.

Val Skorup, a Clinton supporter from Illinois, tweeted, “Is this a reality show gone wrong?”

Electoral college maps glowed red in the early hours of Wednesday, a clear indication that Trump had triumphed over the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton with 288 electoral votes to 218. The former secretary of state and US senator had, in fact, won the popular vote, but because of the United States’ electoral college system the winner is determined by who gets 270 electoral votes. Electoral votes come from the number of states each candidate wins.

Then came Donald Trump standing in his campaign headquarters ın New York City, delivering a victory speech after winning the presidential election. The image was, until that moment, unimaginable for many. 

“I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans,” Trump told supporters, adding that he sought guidance from those who did not support him in the past “so that we can rebuild this great country.”

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump spoke at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York. (Reuters)

“I will always be #WithHer regardless! #ElectionNight #ImWithHer #Elections2016,” Courtney Allen from North Carolina tweeted in response to the results that were pouring in, using social media hashtags popular among Clinton supporters. 

The shock expressed by Clinton supporters followed days of optimistic predictions for her camp from media and analysts. 

The New York Times forecast overwhelming odds in favour of a Clinton presidency, judging that she had an 85 percent chance of winning the presidential election and 15 percent for Trump. The New York Times used polling data to forecast the winner. 

CNN forecasted Clinton winning a clear majority at 268 with Trump at 204, saying that Clinton was in a “stronger electoral position than the GOP nominee.” 

Polls conducted by CNN show Clinton leading in states such as Pennsylvania and North Carolina, but these states were lost for her on the day of the election, both of them displaying a Trump majority.

Sam Wang at the Princeton Election Consortium did not see Trump moving past 240 electoral college votes, even going as far to proclaim to more than 30,000 Twitter followers that if he did, he will eat a bug. Wang’s method is not unlike the FiveThirtyEight and Huffington Post models, using data from state polls rather than national polls as he deems them more accurate. 

All these predictions could not have been more wrong. 

“Trump will be the next president. I never thought that could happen. I was wrong. So were almost all the experts,” tweeted Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist. 

“Yes, I am capable of admitting when I'm wrong -- if I'm wrong -- and eating the crow,” Natalie Jackson, a senior polling editor at The Huffington Post tweeted

The shock expressed by Clinton supporters followed days of optimistic predictions for her camp from media and analysts.

The discrepancy between what mainstream analysts and media outlets were predicting versus the outcome, was jarring and unprecedented, much like the Brexit vote that saw Britain opt to leave the European Union. Rarely have so many commentators been so far off the mark in predicting a major election. 

One of the reasons that analysts may have gotten it wrong boils down to fundamental flaws in forecasting. A lot of predictive models, like the ones used by CNN, The Huffington Post and The New York Times, make use of data from publicly available polls to go into models that assume voter intentions. 

However, as Dr Allan Lichtman told TRT World, “Polls are not predictions. Polls are just a snapshot. They tell you what people say they might do at a given point in time.”

Dr Lichtman notes that the issue with polls is that they rarely take into account whether those polled are going to vote although they do attempt to screen for likely voters. “They are not designed for prediction but are misused as predictive tools,” he says. 

The Huffington Post has since published a piece acknowledging that by their own calculation, they relied too much on polls when it came to predicting the election outcome. 

“The problem was that I placed way too much faith in polls. I assumed they would be right,” Natalie Jackson wrote.

Another factor that was missed by many analysts in the run-up to this election season was the silent majority. These are voters who did not openly endorse Trump, but still identified with his policies.

“Here were a lot of people who weren’t going to stick a Trump sign in their grass, weren’t going to put a Trump sticker on their car because they didn’t want to get their paint job keyed or a brick thrown through their window. But they went into the booth and voted for him,” Derrick Wilburn, the Colorado GOP State Chairman told The Colorado Independent

Sam Wang, has speculated to CNN in the wake of the results that one of the reasons that the polls could have gotten it this wrong is due to "shy" Trump voters. 

The media had additionally underestimated how popular Trump was with voters. As Jim Rutenberg put it for The New York Times, “The misfire on Tuesday night was about a lot more than a failure in polling. It was a failure to capture the boiling anger of a large portion of the American electorate that feels left behind by a selective recovery, betrayed by trade deals that they see as threats to their jobs and disrespected by establishment Washington, Wall Street and the mainstream media.”

The biases against Trump, although not overt, were there. The mainstream media were convinced that a Trump majority would not prevail purely based on their personal views. “We were all guilty — myself included — of kind of writing him off,” Chris Wallace, a Fox News anchor, said in an interview, The New York Times reported.

Although mainstream news agencies treated Trump as something of an outlier, Dr Lichtman notes that “the media gave vastly more coverage to Trump.”

The coverage of the Republican candidate over the course of the election campaign portrayed Trump as comical and failed to take the prospect of his presidency seriously, working on the assumption that he would not win the election. The lines between information and entertainment became blurred as Trump was seen as the punch line to just another political joke. 

Author: Azaera Amza

TRTWorld and agencies