Monday, July 8, 2019

Interview: Charlie Cook explains what really happened with polling in the Trump v. Clinton contest

Editor's note: This interview was originally published in April 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 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.

Like nearly all other professional election watchers, Charlie Cook believed that Clinton would defeat Trump. He went so far as to declare their contest finished during mid-October. Despite the – to quote an infamous Chicago Tribune headline – "Dewey Defeats Truman" quality of said statement, it is an aberration from the norm. Cook has enjoyed a long, prosperous, and stable career of election forecasting. 

As his must-read publication, the Cook Political Report, explains, he "is considered one of the nation’s leading authorities on American politics and U.S. elections. In 2010, Charlie was a co-recipient of the American Political Science Association's prestigious Carey McWilliams award to honor "a major journalistic contribution to our understanding of politics." In the spring semester of 2013, Charlie served as a Resident Fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

"Charlie founded the Cook Political Report in 1984 and became a columnist for Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill, in 1986. In 1998 he moved his column to National Journal. Charlie has served as a political analyst or election night analyst for CBS, CNN and NBC News and has been a frequent political analyst for all three major broadcast news networks and has appeared on Meet the Press and This Week."
Cook 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?

Charlie Cook: Whenever I am asked why the polls were so far off in the 2016 presidential election I always ask, “which polls are you talking about?”  If you are talking about the national polls, the simple answer is that they weren't far off at all.

National polls are designed to measure what the national popular vote is at that point in time. Going into Election Day, the average, the most widely watched poll average, showed Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump by by 3.3 percentage points, 45.5 to 42.2 percent (with Gary Johnson pulling 4.7 percent, Jill Stein 1.9 percent).  In the two-way, the margin between Clinton and Trump was 3.2 points, 46.8 to 43.6 percent.  The last ABC News/Washington Post, CBS News, Fox News and NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls each showed Clinton ahead by four points.  The final results were Clinton winning the national popular vote by 2.1 percentage points, a margin of just under 2.9 million votes.  The RCP average of 3.3 point was 1.2 percentage points higher than the than the 2.1 point popular, the four network polls four point margin were off by 1.9 percentage points, all showing the correct direction, Clinton leading in the popular vote.  

What few people realize is that the national polls in 2016 were actually more accurate than they were in 2012 when the RCP averages showed Obama ahead by seven-tenths of a point, he won by 3.9 percentage points, a miss by 3.2 percentage points.   

The main reason why people are castigating the national polls is that the popular vote and the Electoral College vote went in opposite directions, something that has happened four times in history, 1876, 1888, 2000 and now 2016.  It was completely unprecedented for a candidate to win the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points or by 2.8 million votes and still lose the Electoral College.  

If the question is about state polling, that is more on target.  The networks and major national pollsters do very little individual state polling, instead single state polls are conducted by a wide variety of polling organizations and sponsors, some in-state news media, some colleges and universities, some individual polling firms doing the surveys for publicity purposes.  The quality of the polls vary enormously from quite good to something more appropriate for lining bird cages.

The big “off” in this election for polls were state-level polls, specifically in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

There were 26 statewide polls released in Michigan between August and Election Day, Clinton led in 25 out of 26, in the RCP average, her lead was 3.6 percentage points, in the final Detroit Free Press poll she was ahead by four points, 42 to 38 percent.  Trump ended up carrying Michigan by two-tenths of a percentage point, a margin of 10,704 votes out of 4,799,284 cast.  By the way, Green Party nominee Jill Stein had 51,463 votes in the state.

In Pennsylvania Clinton was ahead in 37 out of 38 polls from August to Election Day, the RCP average showed Clinton ahead by 1.9 percentage points, the final CNN poll put Clinton’s lead at four points, the last Quinnipiac University poll gave her a lead of five points.  Trump ended up winning the state by seven-tenths of a point, 44,307 votes out of 6,115402 cast.  If you are curious, Stein received 49,941 votes in the state.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was in Wisconsin, Clinton led in each of the 32 public polls released from August to the November 8 election.  The RCP average was Clinton up by 6.5 points, in the most respected poll in the state, conducted for the Marquette University Law School, the former Secretary of State had a six point lead.  Trump went on to win the Badger State by seven-tenths of a point, 22,177 out of 2,976,150 cast. (Stein received 33,072, not accusing Jill Stein of electing Trump President, just sayin.)   Some Democrats have bitterly noted that Clinton was the first Democratic or Republican nominee to not step foot in Wisconsin between Labor Day and Election Day since 1972. To the Trump campaign’s credit, he appeared in the state six times during that period.  Whether that made a difference or not, who knows, but it is interesting.


Editor's note: What about other states in Clinton's vaunted 'firewall'? Cook chats about this and much more in the next chapter of our discussion, which will be published this coming Saturday.