Have Pollsters Learned Nothing since the Last Election?

While the moniker “fake news” is typically reserved for cable news and some of the more prominent newspapers in America, the term could also be applied to presidential polls. How many pollsters predicted Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election by a landslide up to and including the day of the actual election?

The “paper of record,” the New York Times, told readers on election day, Nov. 8, 2016, that Hillary Clinton had an 85 percent chance of winning the election. Their prediction was updated on 10:20 PM ET, oblivious to the evening smiles on cable news shows that were curdling into frowns and outright hysteria.

Screen shot from the New York Times web site on Nov. 8, 2016 // Fair Use

Not only were they wrong, but they were also in abject denial over events unfolding before them in real time. The NY Times was in good company as most pollsters got it wrong in 2016, with Rasmussen arguably the most accurate of the bunch.

Have pollsters learned from their mistakes? Or are they about to step in it again in 2020? Judging by some recent polling news, it appears that history may be repeating itself. As the old proverb says, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Several days ago, this headline ran, much to the delight of CNN and MSNBC anchors, “Fox News poll shows Trump losing to Biden, Warren, Sanders and Harris.” That’s it, then, the race is over. The message to Trump supporters is to give up in despair and leave those MAGA hats in the closet.

The fact that this is a Fox News poll should throw cold water on the narrative of Fox being in the tank for President Trump. Fox News didn’t conduct the poll, however, but instead outsourced it to Braun Research Inc as noted in the poll’s methodology.

Opinion polls are only as good as their samples. The Fox News poll surveyed registered voters, unlike Rasmussen, which surveys likely voters. Why is that important? CNN reported that only 55 percent of eligible voters actually voted in 2016. An opinion poll that queries the half of the population that doesn’t even bother to vote will be far less accurate than one surveying those most likely to vote.

The other aspect of sampling is the political proclivities of those being surveyed. For example, if a survey asking about President Trump’s job performance was carried out in a liberal enclave such as Boulder, Berkeley, or Ithaca, his approval numbers would be in single digits at best.

The Fox News poll oversampled Democrats by 8 points, 48 percent of those surveyed identified as Democrats while only 40 percent as Republican. I’m sure the pollsters have a rationale for skewing the sample to the left, perhaps scientific, or else perhaps, to get a result they want.

Most of those polls predicting a Hillary Clinton landslide in 2016 also oversampled Democrats and the results speak for themselves. As a result, many Republicans are distrustful of surveys and either refuse to answer pollster phone calls or else give false answers to skew the results.

What do other polls say? Do they support the Fox News poll or cast doubt on its validity?

Rasmussen’s Daily Presidential Tracking poll, on August 16, showed President Trump 3 percentage points higher than President Obama at the exact same point in his presidency, 46 versus 43 percent total approval. Obama was easily reelected to a second term.

Gallup shows Trump with a 41 percent approval rating, exactly the same as Obama in the third year of his presidency. Interestingly, Ronald Reagan was only at 43 percent approval in the third year of his presidency and won a 49-state landslide reelection. In contrast, George H.W. Bush sat at 71 percent approval in his third year and lost reelection.

This means that opinion polls have limited predictive value. Other metrics, such as the state of the economy, may be more important than random phone calls to registered voters. Record low unemployment, particularly for women, blacks, and Hispanics and a booming economy may be a better predictor for Trump’s reelection prospects.

Despite the media’s pivot from Russian collusion to white supremacy and racism as the latest attack leveled against the President, “50 percent of Latinos support the job Trump is doing” according to a recent Marist poll.

Black support, according to Rasmussen, is hovering around 30 percent. In 2016, Trump only received 8 percent of the black vote. If he doubled or tripled his support within this core Democrat constituency, traditional electoral predictions all fly out the window.

Another Democrat core group is joining the Trump train: “The Log Cabin Republicans, the nation’s largest collective of LGBTQ conservatives, has officially endorsed the re-election of President Donald Trump — after its board of directors voted against endorsing him in 2016.”

Predictit, the “stock market for politics,” reflects not opinion surveys, but the decisions of financial traders putting their money on the line. When asked: “Who will win the 2020 U.S. presidential election?” Predictit investors have Trump at 44 cents compared to the next closest Democrat Elizabeth Warren at 22 cents, Joe Biden at 18 cents, and Bernie Sanders at 9 cents.


Screenshot showing partial results from Predictit as of August 2019 // Fair Use

Liberal governance is losing popularity elsewhere in the world, too. Trump’s twin in looks and policy, Boris Johnson, is the new U.K. Prime Minister. Italy, Brazil, and Hungary have Trump-style leaders. Even our progressive neighbor to the north, Canada, is now trending conservative, falling out of love with their woke, virtue-signaling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Lastly, look at crowd sizes, not a metric typically used in gauging political support. Trump draws crowds in an order of magnitude larger than any of the Democrat candidates, as demonstrated last week in New Hampshire.

This is the landscape before the 2020 presidential campaign has even started. Wait until Trump focuses on the eventual Democrat nominee, using his effective nicknames and branding of his opposition.

This time Trump is the incumbent, with four years of political experience under his belt. Last time he was a businessman with no political background, only his energy, enthusiasm, and charisma. Imagine how much more formidable he will be this time around.

If political polls continue to shape rather than to reflect political opinion, they are as likely to be as wildly incorrect in 2020 as they were in 2016.


Brian C Joondeph, MD, is a Denver based physician, freelance writer and occasional radio talk show host whose pieces have appeared in American Thinker, Daily Caller, and other publications. Follow him on Facebook,  LinkedIn, Twitter, and QuodVerum.

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