Friday, September 20, 2019

Interview from the Archive: "Polling is the science of ABC—almost being certain, with the emphasis on 'almost'," Larry Sabato says

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

This is the second half of my discussion with Dr. Larry Sabato. The first article is available 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.
Like nearly all other professional election watchers, Dr. Larry Sabato believed that Clinton would defeat Trump. Unlike many of them, after election night was through, he publicly owned up to his predictions being off. Such professionalism ought to be expected from a man who has established himself, election upon election, as one of the most astute observers America's body politic has known; at least in modern times.
The Doctor "is a New York Times best-selling author, has won two Emmys, and is recognized as one of the nation’s most respected political analysts. He appears multiple times a week on national and international TV, including FOX, CNN, MSNBC, and CNN International. A Rhodes Scholar, Dr. Sabato is the founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, and has had visiting appointments at Oxford and Cambridge universities in England," his UVA biography explains. "Dr. Sabato is the author or editor of two dozen books on American politics. He has taught over 20,000 students in his 40-year career, and the University of Virginia has given him its highest honor, The Thomas Jefferson Award.
"Professor Sabato is best known for his spot-on election predictions. He heads up Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which has a remarkable 98% accuracy rating in projecting all races for President, Senate, House, and Governor since 2000."
Sabato recently spoke with me about many issues relative to electioneering in modern America. Some of our conversation 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?

Dr. Larry Sabato: Polling is the science of ABC—almost being certain, with the emphasis on “almost”. We forget that at our peril.

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?

Sabato: No question about  it. The future of polling may be in online surveying (where there was less of a ‘shy Trump’ effect. Or maybe a combination of online and telephone polling. But we’ve got to experiment and figure out how to change.

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?

Sabato: Actually, it was wrong too, but in the other direction, as the poll director admitted. It had Trump winning the popular vote handily, when he lost it by 2.1%. Perhaps its techniques can be refined, and it can add to the mix more accurately in 2020. I salute their experimentation. We need more of it.

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

Sabato: People always want to know the future, even if the predictions are a mirage. No, there will always be some form(s) of polling, and let’s hope we can do it better and get it right. By the way, I am not a pollster, just an analyst who uses polling in his forecasts.

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

Sabato: Pollsters and analysts need to own up to their mistakes. I’m still waiting to hear that from most of them. My Crystal Ball team published a ‘mea culpa’ immediately, and went on national TV to admit error and promise to do better. I’ve been surprised we’ve had little company in the months since Nov. 8.