Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Interview from the Archive: John Zogby explains how he embraces the Internet in our age of polling problems

Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 2, 2017.

This is the second half of my discussion with John Zogby. The first article can be read here.
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.
While most 'experts' were cleaning egg off their faces, John Zogby cemented his credibility as the real McCoy. He did not throw in the towel for Trump, recognizing that the race was much closer than conventional wisdom let on. 
His biography at The Huffington Post describes him as the"former president and CEO of Zogby International, remains by all accounts the hottest pollster in the United States today.
"'All hail Zogby, the maverick predictor who beat us all,' proclaimed the Washington Post in November 1996 after Zogby alone called that presidential election with pinpoint accuracy. In the recent razor-thin 2000 elections, daily national tracking polls conducted by Zogby International in the last few weeks foretold a tightening of the race for president while nearly all other polling firms projected an easy victory for Gov. George W. Bush. Zogby International instead was the first to observe the gap closing significantly between Bush and Vice-President Al Gore in the waning hours of the election. In his post election 2000 review, the acclaimed Godfrey Sperling, columnist for the Christian Science Monitor called John Zogby 'Champion Pollster.'
His biography also mentions that "(h)e has been praised as 'the most accurate pollster' (Seattle Post Intelligencer, Cleveland Plain Dealer, USA Today), 'respected' and 'pioneering' (Albany Times Union), 'the pace setter in the polling business' (New York Post), and 'the big winner in 1996' (Campaigns and Elections, L. Brent Bozell, and the O'Leary/Kamber Report)."
Zogby recently spoke with me about the big issues which face electioneering in America. Some of our discussion is included below.


Joseph Ford Cotto: While it is obviously too early to say precisely what will become of polling in 2020, no shortage of pundits and politicians have resumed fawning over new numbers. What should they take away from last year's lesson in reliable election forecasting?

John Zogby:
They should continue to look at question wording, ordering of questions, the number Dems, Repubs and Indies in the sample.

Cotto: Experts generally agree that it is becoming harder to take an accurate opinion survey. Do you think that this increasing difficulty related to the performance of polls last year?

Zogby: It is increasingly difficult to conduct surveys. I like to innovate so we have to change methodology. With 94% of likely voters having Internet access at home we will continue to do Internet polling, even mobile to web. I still think the polls were better than the coverage.

Cotto: Perhaps the most-castigated of all polls from the 2016 election was the one USC Dornsife conducted for the LA Times. It turned out to be one of the only surveys which correctly forecast the race. How did this poll evade the failure of nearly all others?

Zogby: I liked that poll but it did not include new voters. The reality is that it had Trump leading the popular vote which he actually lost. But I have no problem with their work.

Cotto: Since it is growing more difficult to take scientific surveys, might the events of 2016 spell an eventual end for the polling industry?

Zogby: No, not at all. If we want polls to predict with pinpoint accuracy -- especially in nail-biter and lead-changing elections -- then the polls will always fail. We just need to read polls more maturely. We will always want to know where our views and choices fit it with the rest of the community.

Cotto: Beyond any other factor, what can pollsters improve on relative to their general failure last year?

Zogby: They need to be more flexible on their methodologies. 

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