Monday, July 17, 2017

Interview: Nathan Gonzales of Inside Elections shares lessons learned from 2016

This is the second half of my discussion with Nathan Gonzales. Read the first segment 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 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 (Read more here)


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?


Nathan Gonzales: I don't know what lessons everyone else learned, but hope the 2016 results injected a little humility into the handicapping industry. For me personally, I've ruled out ruling things out. But also doesn't mean every candidate in every race has an equal chance of winning.

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?

Gonzales: The cost of polling related to low response rates is a challenge for the entire polling industry. As organizations try to cut costs, quality can become a victim. Some firms are moving to an online panel, which isn't scientific. But it can save money for the organization, but I'm also just outside.

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 foresaw Donald Trump's victory. How did this poll evade the failure of nearly all others?

Gonzales: The USC/LA Times poll was not any more accurate than the others and was arguably worse. It "called" Trump's victory, but it was measuring the national popular vote, which Trump lost by nearly 3 million voters. If you told me USC/LA Times had polls with Trump leading in Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, then they should stand up and accept the congratulations.  

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

Gonzales: I don't think this is the end for the polling industry. The parties and candidates rely on data to make millions of dollars of decisions about the content of ads and placement of ads. As long as they have a vested interested in polling data, then I'm confident they will figure something out. The mediums of polling could evolve and include online polling but that isn't imminent.

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


Gonzales: I think pollsters can improve on gauging the correct partisan makeup of the electorate from cycle to cycle. They can also avoid falling into a "failure of imagination" - refusing to believe that certain outcomes can't happen.

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