Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Interview from the Archive: John Zogby says the press "really wanted Donald Trump to lose -- so much that they screened out any other possibility"

Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 1, 2017. 

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 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: 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?

John Zogby: Zogby did not poll the horse race after two weeks before the election, though our last poll had Clinton leading by 2 points. With that said, I think it was more a combination of a misunderstanding of how to read polls and a media that 
really wanted Donald Trump to lose -- so much that they screened out any other possibility. 

As for the inability to read polls, I think our expectations are too high. Even a poll the day before the election cannot capture the last minute decision-makers, and there are many that do not make up their minds until the day of the election. Polls are samples and have a margin of error we cannot forget. But I correctly read the trend-lines. The race was clearly tightening over the last week, especially in the battleground states. Thus, in New Hampshire, HRC had a 10 point lead 10 days before the election and that evaporated down to a tie just before the election. 

The same for North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida. The trend lines suggested either a tightening race or Trump momentum. The media were stunned because they refused to.

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?Zogby: In the old days there were only a few polls. Even my national debut in 1996, I was one of only 7 national polls. There are so many media today that each one has its own poll. Some are clearly better (and worse) than others, but generally I think the record shows that most actually did a good job. Remember it is the trend line, not the "prediction to the tent of a percent.

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?Zogby: The more the merrier. History can be confounded and polls can have a bad day. Only God knows who will win and she is not talking. But I do believe the polls did not do as badly as the media did.

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?

My above answers, really. Most polls had HRC leading by zero to 4 points. She won by about 2 nationwide. And the states I mentioned were clearly directional. Remember, voters had to choose between two very dis-likable candidates so things were not so cut and dried as before.
Cotto: Considering what happened last year, is it likely that, during 2020, polls will find less credibility among the media and general public?Zogby: I think polls will always be around and the media needs to fill news holes. Will some of the media not be around?

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