Polls missed support for Trump

Updated: 2016-11-10 13:11


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The polls blew it. 

US survey companies and media organizations that collectively presaged a close Hillary Clinton victory now face an autopsy on how they got it so wrong after a year suffused by polls, aggregates of polls and even real-time projections of the vote on Election Day.

While the predictions gave some observers a soothing sense of certainty, actual voters still possessed the capacity to shock. Donald Trump's commanding performance defied the final surveys of the American electorate, which broadly predicted a Clinton win of 2 to 4 percentage points.

Final tallies by CBS News, FiveThirtyEight, Fox News, Wall Street Journal-NBC News and Washington Post-ABC News all predicted a relatively safe 4-point win for Clinton.

Only slightly less wrong were polls by Bloomberg Politics and New York Times's Upshot, which estimated a Clinton victory by 3 points. Rasmussen Reports called for a 2-point Clinton triumph.

A few got it right: The USC/Los Angeles Times Daybreak tracking poll and The Investor's Business Daily-TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence poll were among the rare outfits to call the election for Trump, by 3 and 2 points, respectively.

The University of Southern California and the LA Times poll had given Trump a significant chance to win over the past four months.The newspaper noted that it adjusted polling data to weight it in a "best case scenario" for Trump, unlike other news outlets that may have underestimated Trump supporters.

"It's harder and harder to poll today, to get a sample that looks like the electorate," said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "We've seen epic fails."

"The anger is stronger than any of us really expected," said Megan Greene, chief economist at Manulife Asset Management in Boston, which handles money for institutional investors such as pensions and foundations.

In the US, questions linger about how to slice the electorate and how to weight under-represented demographics -- whether by ethnicity or location or political affiliation -- while Americans increasingly withdraw from survey participation and view pollsters themselves through a political lens.

Peter Woolley, a professor of comparative politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Florham Park, New Jersey, said a key part of the difference between expectations and the results was that people simply expected surveys to be too precise. Woolley is a past director of the PublicMind polling institute at the university.

"Polling is a scientific method to arrive at an estimate," he said early Wednesday. "We tend to over-report the accuracy of the poll, and tend to forget very quickly that it's an estimate within a range."

J. Ann Selzer, an Iowa pollster who conducts surveys for Bloomberg Politics, said her trade entered uncharted territory this year as it attempted to deal with the spread of wireless communication and a demographically volatile electorate.

"There was a lot of experimenting this year with the types of questions they were using, the types of methodologies they were using," she said in an interview at Bloomberg News headquarters in New York. "There's the continuing barrier of the lack of landlines, the erosion of landlines. In the old days, if we knew your landline phone number we knew where you lived and that was fantastic for pollsters. Now it's very difficult."

Turning points in the race happened at poorly timed moments, she said.

"Day by day, things happened that would break the poll that was currently in the field," she said. "Even since Sunday, when most polls were done, things changed."

Pollsters have gotten some relatively undeserved criticism. The UK's June vote to leave the European Union, often called a surprise result, actually was largely deemed too close to call by opinion polls. While markets priced in a vote for "Remain," traditional tallies were much closer to the end result for a Brexit win.

Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute said every precept must be re-examined.

"I don't think the business is particularly introspective, but it needs to be going forward," she said. "This has been a business that's told us so much about America. ... To lose that going forward would be a real problem."