Thursday, June 29, 2017

Interview: Nathan Gonzales says "too much polling" is "muddying the picture" of American politics

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 then-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, when all was said and done, she walked away with the upper hand.

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.

Like nearly all other professional election watchers, Nathan Gonzales believed that Clinton would defeat Trump. He went so far as to declare her set for a 316-vote triumph within the Electoral College. Despite the – to quote an infamous Chicago Tribune headline – "Dewey Defeats Truman" quality of said prediction, it is an aberration from the norm. Gonzales has enjoyed a long, prosperous, and stable career of election forecasting. 

He "is Editor & Publisher of Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan analysis of campaigns for Senate, House, governor and president," Gonzales's biography at that publication relates. "He was an editor, analyst, and writer for The Rothenberg Political Report for more than 13 years before taking over the company in 2015. 
"Nathan is also Elections Analyst for Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and Founder and Publisher of"
Gonzales recently converse with me about many issues relevant 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?
Nathan Gonzales: The good news about 2016 proved that most election handicappers don't just make up predictions. The projections are based in data. The challenge is that the data was flawed or incomplete, or both. 
I think the 2016 "miss" in the presidential race was a mixture of bad polling, a lack of polling, and improper reporting on polling. If there had been consistent polling by reputable outlets in the presidential race in Wisconsin and Minnesota and Michigan, I think the narrative about the presidential race would have been different and the result would not have been as big of surprise. The polling would have shown that Donald Trump had multiple paths to victory, as did Hillary Clinton, because there were more swing states. But we didn't have that, so it led most everyone down a single path toward Clinton.

I think there is too much polling and the data set is getting crowded and clouded. People and organizations are trying to poll on the cheap in order to get P.R. and it's muddying the picture.  

Cotto: Crunching numbers, especially in our social media-driven, sound bite-prone age, is touted as the begin 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?

Gonzales: I think the press can be more discerning about which polls to report or, at least at a minimum, provide better context about the track record and reliability of an individual survey. Sadly, new poll numbers often get clips as readers seek new data, so there is a business reason why the media reports on poll after poll. And even many people claim to hate the horse race of elections, they'll click on those polling stories to find out who is winning. 
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?

Gonzales: I haven't spent a lot of time analyzing Allan's model, or anyone else's model for that matter. But I think the best way to analyze races is with a combination of past, current, and future data. While part of history pointed toward a Trump victory, other parts did not. Historically, candidates without political experience don't win. Candidates with as high of negatives as he had don't win. Candidates who hardly air television ads don't win.
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?

Gonzales: I think false is a bit strong. We know now that may state polls under-estimated Donald Trump's performance, but it was within the margin of error in most cases. And Trump over-performed the polls in the right states in order to win. The national polls which should Clinton with an advantage were correct, considering she won the popular vote by nearly 3 million voters. But of course that's not how we elect a president in this country. 

Cotto: Considering what happened last year, is it likely that, during 2020, polls will find less credibility among the media and general public?

Gonzales: Most people believe the polls when they agree with their worldview and discredit the polls when they disagree with where they think the country or a race is headed. Polls should always be viewed and reported on with skepticism, but I don't think the media is going to stop reporting on them altogether. And the parties aren't going to stop polling because the data guide millions of dollars worth of decisions for the rest of the campaign.