Originally published at http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/columns/adam-goodman-lessons-from-the-polling-debacle-of-2016/2303300
In 2016, conditions were ripe for a Donald Trump surprise. Americans were losing confidence in their leaders and their future. The Democrats fielded a candidate long on politics but short on integrity. And while the system spent billions this cycle to protect itself, the people had already decided the status quo was out, and the drive to find an alternative was in.
That’s why, more than four months ago, I wrote that Donald Trump would become the next president of the United States if, by Election Day, he closed to within a few points of Hillary Clinton. More than a few thought I had lost my mind, that I’d headed into the pall of darkness against the pull of reason.
Yet Trump’s win was grounded in precedent, a misreading of the environment and in a universal unwillingness to read beyond the numbers. It wasn’t in vogue to consider the triumph of the rogue.
The few points that separated Clinton and Trump heading into the election is within what pollsters call the “margin of error,” the statistical variance between a sampling of reality and true reality.
This “margin” gives America’s pulse-takers some wiggle room to defend miscalculation, or disclaim misinterpretation, in telling us what we’re telling them. About how we feel … what we like and don’t like … in whom we trust and those we don’t … and, ultimately, about how we will vote come Election Day.
In a tight race like Clinton vs. Trump, which defied imagination and eluded certainty, it remained the ultimate polling disclaimer, the warning sign on the bottle of democracy’s prescription bottle that read “trusting in today’s numbers can come to back to haunt you tomorrow.”
That’s because polls are moving snapshots of opinion over time, where late-in-the-game momentum breeds potential and untimely deceleration leads to inglorious defeat.
So when the Trump-Clinton poll numbers fell within the “margin of error” in many of the key battleground states moving into the final weekend, like much of America, I braced myself for a runaway cascade of horse race metaphors (“it’s going right down to the wire;” “neck and neck;” “whoa, Nellie, we’re looking at a photo finish”).
Instead, all we heard in the final days were declarations from every major news network, and nearly every major newspaper, about the foregone triumph of Hillary Clinton and the inevitable defeat of Donald Trump.
Despite the highly regarded RealClearPolitics’ polling showing a scant 3-point edge on Election Day, the bravado of predictors was unharnessed on an unsuspecting public:
Hillary Clinton has an 85 percent chance of winning.
She’s going to win by more than 5 million votes.
If Clinton doesn’t win, it will be a giant surprise.
Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States.
Then the extraordinary happened, leaving pundits scrambling for answers and the public mesmerized by Trumpian triumph.
So what did we learn from all this? Are polls and pollsters — save for Trump’s own — to be spurned for missing the mark?
Should we just trust our gut moving forward and ignore the science of politics? The answers: Yes. No.
• Most polls are accurate reflections of reality that guide campaigns in defining and targeting message in an increasingly mobile communications environment. After all, democracy resonates best when it is based on the relevance of reflecting the hopes and dreams of others.
• When you see evidence of an electoral phenomenon —30,000 person rallies, outside-the-box tactics, beyond-the- lines communication — ignore them at your peril. It’s not good enough to say it’s never happened before and dismiss it as heresy, versus how it just may be happening and embrace it as something to be assessed.
• It’s hard to measure a movement. That’s because polling is modeled on past elections, determining who is sampled, and in what percentages, to calculate today’s ballot numbers. Bernie Sanders was proof of this in primaries in states like Michigan and Indiana, where he came from far off the pace to startle the pundits (and his Democrat opponent).
America is clearly more open to “movement candidates” like Trump and Sanders than ever before, meaning pollsters will have to flex to forces they’ve rarely seen in numbers they’ve rarely polled.
• The “hidden vote” is real. I witnessed this for the first time more than 30 years ago, when a tough cop-turned- mayor of Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo, always outperformed his own polling on Election Day because it wasn’t considered “socially acceptable” to confess you were a Rizzo vote. But residents wanted a tough mayor to run a then- tough city, and Rizzo was the remedy.
The reality show of the campaign for president has come to an end, but the attempt to grasp and measure reality has begun anew. Welcome to the new science of polling, where the impossible is embraced and the unthinkable measured.