Story by Joseph Ford Cotto
"Like I've said before .... polls are only good for strippers and cross-country skiers," Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly two days before last year’s presidential election.
While I have criticized her more than a fair bit during years gone by, it is undeniable that she turned out to be a sage among pundits.
When Palin made her remark, virtually all national opinion surveys – save two highly important yet conspicuously underreported ones – indicated an impending win for Hillary Clinton. Reuters predicted she was set to win 247 electoral votes outright and favored to seize so many more that her chance of victory hovered at 90 percent.
At the Princeton Election Consortium, Dr. Sam Wang – a neuroscientist and prolific author – declared that Clinton enjoyed a 99 percent probability of winning. The platinum-grade forecaster Moody's Analytics also claimed she would triumph in the Electoral College.
United Press International, in conjunction with the polling group CVoter, reported that her Electoral College lead over Trump was substantial: 259 to 209.
After the race was called, Clinton barely eked out 232 votes. Her vaunted 'firewall' of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin crumbled into ash. Only Minnesota and New Hampshire stood -- and not by any means tall. Clinton struggled to win either, despite the former having gone to every Democratic nominee since Richard Nixon's 1972 earth-slide over George McGovern.
Just a few hours earlier, Clinton fans were jubilant over her seemingly assured victory. By the morning after, perhaps more tears were shed than at any other time in twenty-first century America.
What is the moral to this story?
Above and beyond all other factors, something is not impossible simply because the smartest guys and gals in the room – or at least those who perceive themselves as such – claim it is. While the self-appointed experts are accustomed to seeing a handful of their predictions go south, such as who will win a House seat or state legislature majority, they were not prepared to flub on so epic a scale as the U.S. presidency.
Like nearly all other professional election watchers, Dr. Larry Sabato believed that Clinton would defeat Trump. Unlike many of them, after election night was through, he publicly owned up to his predictions being off. Such professionalism ought to be expected from a man who has established himself, election upon election, as one of the most astute observers America's body politic has known; at least in modern times.
The Doctor "is a New York Times best-selling author, has won two Emmys, and is recognized as one of the nation’s most respected political analysts. He appears multiple times a week on national and international TV, including FOX, CNN, MSNBC, and CNN International. A Rhodes Scholar, Dr. Sabato is the founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, and has had visiting appointments at Oxford and Cambridge universities in England," his UVA biography explains. "Dr. Sabato is the author or editor of two dozen books on American politics. He has taught over 20,000 students in his 40-year career, and the University of Virginia has given him its highest honor, The Thomas Jefferson Award.
"Professor Sabato is best known for his spot-on election predictions. He heads up Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which has a remarkable 98% accuracy rating in projecting all races for President, Senate, House, and Governor since 2000."
Sabato recently spoke with me about many issues relative to electioneering in modern America. Some of our conversation is included below.
Joseph Ford Cotto: More than any other reason, why did polling not prove an effective guide to predicting an outcome for the 2016 presidential election, unlike in previous races?
Dr. Larry Sabato: There are many parts to the answer, but I’d cite first and foremost that the main problem was in the battleground states. Many polls were far off the mark there, a combination of poor polling techniques, inability to foresee the turnout changes coming (compared with 2012), and at least a bit of a “shy Trump vote” that either wouldn’t admit their Trump choice or wouldn’t participate in polling at all.
Cotto: Crunching numbers, especially in our social media-driven, sound bite-prone age, is touted as the be all, end all of event forecasting. In 2016, perhaps more attention was given to polls than in any previous election. Might the press have generated such a demand for polling data that quantity increased at the expense of quality?
Sabato: We need to distinguish between gold-standard polling and fly-by-night operations to a greater degree than we do. All polls are not equal, that’s for sure—though in 2016 even the best polls appeared to be off in one direction or the other at least some of the time. Lower participation rates among the public may be one explanation.
Cotto: Historical data, analyzed and complied into two studies by SUNY Stonybrook's Helmut Norpoth and American University's Allan Lichtman, respectively, indicated that Donald Trump would win. Many, both in the media and otherwise, chose to ignore these academics even though they have solid track records. After 2016, some might say that history is a better election forecaster than opinion surveys. What is your perspective on this?
Sabato: Actually, my Crystal Ball included Norpoth’s model every time we reviewed the political science projections. Some of the models, like Norpoth’s, did quite well, as did some others, and I know my team is going to pay much closer attention to these models than polling averages next time. We had a round-up of this in the Crustal Ball a couple weeks after the election.
Cotto: Many different polls agreed with each other on the presidential election's anticipated outcome, yet were rendered false when all was said and done. Untold sums of money were spent on gaging public sentiment, and cutting-edge technology utilized, but this generally amounted to nothing. How could so many different scientific surveys have been wrong?
Sabato: It was not intentional, and that’s for sure. No one wants to be proven wrong on a big election. Some surveys modelled turnout on 2012, and of course what really happened was that rural and small town turnout was through the roof in many places, while central city and millennial turnout was well down.
Also, one reason for error concerns your state. Trump received the all-time low percentage for a Republican presidential candidate there, and Clinton exceeded Obama’s margin considerably. That massive number of excess votes gave her the 2.1% popular vote edge. Normally, when a candidate wins by that many votes, the Electoral College moves right along with the popular vote. Not this time. Trump’s combined, thin margin of 77,700 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania “trumped” Clinton’s 2.86 million popular-vote edge.
Cotto: Considering what happened last year, is it likely that, during 2020, polls will find less credibility among the media and general public?
Sabato: They will have less credibility, for sure. I plan to say, “The polls say X, and we’ll see whether they are right or wrong in November.” We all got a 1948-style lesson in 2016.