Why So Many Pollsters Were So Completely Wrong

Some theories as to where it went off the rails
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 9, 2016 12:54 PM CST
Why So Many Pollsters Were So Completely Wrong
People are livid at Nate Silver and other stats wonks.   (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

(Newser) – The prevailing question the morning after Donald Trump's stunning victory is: How did so many get it so wrong? An "absolutely unreal" "Chance of Winning Presidency" graphic on the New York Times' forecasting page Tuesday evening showed Trump ascending from a 20% chance of winning the White House to near certainty within a few hours. USA Today says the upset dealt a "devastating blow" to the nation's leading pollsters, which had Clinton mostly ahead overall in the months leading up to the election, including in battleground states. Some ideas as to why:

  • The director of USC's Center for Economic and Social Research tells USA Today human pollsters may have been at a disadvantage. "There's some suggestion that Clinton supporters are more likely to say they're a Clinton supporter than Trump supporters are to say they're a Trump supporter."

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  • The president of the British Polling Council agrees, telling the Telegraph—which makes the inevitable Brexit comparison—that the UK has witnessed a similar phenomenon in that those who don't like to reveal their "political sympathies" are more often conservative than liberal.
  • Politico offers a couple of possible reasons for the surprise switch, including surveys that maybe undersampled non-college-educated whites, as well as the "surge in momentum" Trump got when the FBI announced it was looking into Clinton-related emails just days before the election.
  • The Economist gets deeper into the numbers weeds, noting there can be a significant mismatch when trying to figure out two important variables: the demographics of the electorate, and the anticipated vote for each group.
  • To wit: "Rural America is basically screaming at us, saying, 'Stop overlooking us!'" said NBC News' Chuck Todd Tuesday night, and the network reports that was backed up. Clinton hit her mark in cities, while Trump exceeded expectations in rural and formerly urban districts.
  • Australia's ABC documents some of the pollsters "now eating humble pie." Among them: a "reflective" Nate Silver and Princeton ace Sam Wang, who in mid-October tweeted, "It is totally over. If Trump wins more than 240 electoral votes, I will eat a bug."
  • Meanwhile, those who reported on the polling results are also taken to task by the New York Times, which notes the news media "by and large missed … the story of a lifetime," including the "boiling anger" of a good number of Americans upset with their perceptions of the economy, the DC establishment, and the mainstream media.
These few did correctly pick Trump, but were ignored. (Read more Election 2016 stories.)

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